CHARLESTON — To hear Kennedy Dean say, she was far from being a great softball player in her formative years.
“I was awful,” Dean said matter-of-factly. “I didn’t have a good glove, I couldn’t bat – years of practice and off-season grinding got me a little bit better I’d say.”
Say the least.
No matter how her softball journey began, Dean ended the high school portion of it in fine style, hitting .522 with 14 doubles, seven homers, 51 RBIs and 39 runs in her senior season and leading Winfield to the Class AA title game. For her contributions, Dean was named West Virginia Hitter of the Year by the West Virginia Sports Writers Association, edging out Lincoln County’s Josie Bird and Cabell Midland’s Quinn Ballengee for the first award.
Whatever Dean went through in her early days in the sport, it was hard to tell when she arrived at Winfield High School. Dean has been a major contributor since she burst onto the scene as a freshman, amassing 24 home runs and 109 RBIs over the course of her career (the 2020 season was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic) and receiving All-State honors each year first team.
But her game took it to another level this season, her batting average increasing by .115 points (from .407 to .522). However, their explanation for the jump does not involve any mechanical adjustments or additional training – quite the contrary.
“Actually, I played basketball all winter and I think that helped me the most,” Dean said. “Taking a step back and changing the sport I played really helped. In my junior year, I spent all winter batting and focusing on softball for a very long time, and I felt like I had reached a plateau. This year I decided to play basketball again and came out fresh this season. I was excited to return to softball because I hadn’t played in a while. It has helped me to be a multisport athlete again.”
Whatever the reason, it all seemed to fall into place for Dean from the start. Though she has plenty of pop, Dean’s willingness and ability to go the other way and sacrifice gaudy home run totals for gap contacts continued to set her apart.
“She watches a lot of softball, she’s a student of the game,” said Winfield coach Steve Hensley. “She has this added knowledge that there probably aren’t that many pitchers coming her way, and if they do, it’s a mistake. She is very right field conscious.”
“My dad and I have always talked about the need to be a contact hitter and produce for my team, and I’ve really tried to focus on that this year,” Dean added. “I’ve always been a pretty good contact hitter and sometimes I get lucky and hit one.”
That selflessness at the plate is hardly an aberration, and as much as her production, this willingness to do whatever it takes is what made Dean a special player, according to Hensley. Dean, who describes herself as a “Swiss Army softball player,” played primarily catcher and shortstop in all positions except pitcher during her three years with the Generals. These traits also made the Youngstown State signee a natural leader for a team that made the state tournament for the first time since 2003.
“You don’t see too many with her skills, but her maturity and her ability to learn — she’ll do anything you ask her to do and she’s so selfless,” Hensley said. “That carries a lot of weight in the eyes of her teammates. Being a good player helps, but being willing to catch or play outfield or play shortstop or do whatever it takes to make your team win carries a lot of weight in terms of leadership and accountability . She will be very, very difficult to replace.”
And when it comes to their favorite enduring legacy in Winfield softball, these things — not RBIs or batting averages — come first.
“I just want all the girls to respect me as a leader — I put them first and wanted them to succeed,” Dean said. “I wanted everyone to feel like they could do anything I could do. Whether I slammed or jumped out, everyone behind me had my back and that’s gotten us as far as we’ve gone.
“No matter what happened, I hope they saw me as a good teammate and a respected leader. Numbers don’t matter – hopefully I just made them feel welcome and encouraged.”
As far as she’s come from those humble beginnings in softball, and even with the awards and honors she’s received since then, Dean continues to remember that kid lost on the field and in the box. And those lows continue to propel them to new highs.
“It was hard work, dedication and a lot of tears — I didn’t feel like I was doing as well as the other girls, and I wasn’t,” Dean said. “My father said to me, ‘You can either let it defeat you or you can go to work and relax.’ I chose this option. I never consider myself the best player on the field, that’s what drives me and pushes me. I’m not the best softball player, I just want to be.”
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