By Ryan Pritt, Charleston Gazette-Mail for the West Virginia Sports Writers Association
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Nearly every newspaper photo of Chapmanville’s Kenzie McCann to be printed over her four years displays the now-graduated senior wearing a focused grimace across her face as she fires a pitch toward home plate.
It’s fitting, as that is how McCann approached each pitch, each inning and each game over her career.
Combining grit, aggression, hustle and unquestioned competitiveness, McCann piled together quite a list of accolades in her time with the Tigers including four Class AA first-team, All-State selections, a 2016 state championship, two state runner-up finishes and now, the 2018 Rachel E. Taylor Award for the state’s player of the year as selected by the West Virginia Sports Writers Association.
McCann edged out Hurricane’s Caiti Mathes, Wyoming East’s Holly Brehm and Wheeling Central’s Riley Bennington for the honor.
“That was my goal from the beginning, to get player of the year,” McCann said. “I just want to thank all of my coaches and God for even having an opportunity to be nominated, much less to get it.”
McCann also credited former Chapmanville player Andi Williamson, the only other Tiger to receive the award back in 2009.
Williamson, a lifelong friend of McCann’s older sister, has worked with McCann in the offseason for many years, but McCann said that prior to the season the two did the most important work of her career.
“She helped me a lot in the mental aspect of the game,” McCann said. “That’s the biggest difference between this year and all the other years.”
Indeed, McCann has posted outstanding numbers in each of her four seasons and this year was no different. Heading into the state tournament, McCann was 15-3 with a 0.30 ERA with 216 strikeouts and 16 walks in 114 innings with with eight shut outs, two saves, two no-hitters and a perfect game. All of that to go with a .549 batting average, .662 slugging percentage with four doubles and 16 stolen bases from the leadoff spot.
But more than just the statistics, McCann was forced to shoulder a bulk of the burden as the Tigers broke in six new starters, including a whole new infield behind her. That included leadership responsibilities, which she took to immediately, often barking out instructions before pitches to infielders and outfielders.
McCann’s average was a full .137 points higher than the next highest Tiger and she factored into all but five of the decisions in the circle, with teammate Charlee Mullins going 5-0.
“Everybody told us, ‘You guys won’t break .500,’” McCann said. “I told the girls, ‘Just play to the best of your ability, I’ll do my job and if you make errors, we will work with it.’ I even told the coaches to be patient. But by the end we were a completely different team.
“I kind of started [asserting myself as a leader] last year going into tournament time and this year I knew I had to take control. I know they looked up to me and I had to help them and keep them up.”
Chapmanville coach Ronnie Ooten said McCann’s ability to lead and inspire her teammates was pivotal in the Tigers’ run back to the state championship game.
“When she done good, we done good,” Ooten said. “It’s hard to say anything negative about her. She’s a great leader. When you’re well-liked by your teammates, they’re going to give 110 percent behind you.
“She’s one of those type of kids that will do anything in the world to help another kid.”
The season and her career didn’t end quite the way McCann had pictured it as she sat on a bucket in the Tigers dugout and looked on as Herbert Hoover registered an 11-1 win in the state championship game, denying the Tigers a crown for the second straight year.
McCann and Huskies ace Delani Buckner engaged in a duel for the ages into the early hours of Thursday morning after weather delays throughout Wednesday. Eventually, the Huskies prevailed 1-0 with a run in the seventh inning, all but sealing Chapmanville’s fate.
After the game ended after midnight, the Tigers were forced to come back early Thursday morning to stave off elimination against Petersburg just to get another crack and the rested Huskies. McCann helped the Tigers past the Vikings 11-1, but she and the team simply ran out of gas as the hot afternoon progressed. McCann was lifted in the early innings and looked on as the Huskies ran off with a second straight title.
“Mentally, I was just out of my game,” McCann said. “That state championship game, I was dead.”
Though a disappointing end, McCann was the first Tiger out of the dugout to meet with Hoover players after the game.
“I told them, ‘It was awesome playing you guys,’” McCann said. “You have to respect them. They’re a great ball team.”
And now, with her prep career behind her, McCann focuses in on beginning her college career at West Virginia State. The Yellow Jackets made it into the Atlantic Regional tournament this season and returns several players that McCann knows, including former teammate Shian Meeks, who was on Chapmanville’s roster during the Tigers’ championship season in 2016.
McCann, who had discussed going to Marshall with former coach Shonda Stanton before Stanton left to go to Indiana before last season, said the familiarity in Institute will help the transition. So far, her friends have offered up some key advice on what to expect.
“They said 6 a.m. workouts suck, that’s what they told me,” McCann said, laughing.
As for Ooten, he expects success at the next level for McCann, even if he has do enforce some rules himself.
“Kids are wanting to run all over the world and go to college just to get a piece of paper that says your smart,” Ooten said. “I’m glad she’s staying close to home. She’s a good student and a good athlete and she’ll succeed there . . . or I’ll drive to Institute myself and wring her neck.”