By CONOR NICHOLL
Newton entered its April 8 doubleheader against league rival Maize South with a 6-2 record. The Railers had ended a 35-game losing streak in 2019. After COVID cancelled 2020, Newton improved to 11-11. Tegan Livesay earned first team all-conference pitcher honors.
Newton returned multiple key seniors who had played since their freshman year, including half-sisters Kennah and Kenzie Cusick, Olivia Sandoval and Gracie Rains.
Three of the four have signed to play a college sport – Kennah to NOC-Enid softball in Oklahoma, Sandoval for Hutchinson Community College softball, Rains signed with Fort Hays volleyball. Kenzie is headed into the Air Force.
The 5-foot-11 Livesay had shown big improvements through the Blitz organization headed by the Stewart family: Kelsey and her parents Chris and Lori. A Maize graduate, Kelsey is one of the most famous softball players in the world with two national titles at Florida and a member of the US Olympic team. Livesay started to play with the Stewarts entering her sophomore year.
Newton had split with Maize South in 2021 with a 14-4 loss and 6-3 win.
This time, the Railers earned 16-6 and 9-7 victories. In the 10-run victory, Livesay had three hits, six RBIs, worked 5.2 innings and struck out 14. Newton pounded out 15 hits, including three from Sandoval against Maize South’s solid pitchers.
In the 9-7 game, Newton trailed 5-0 after two and 7-3 after four. Veteran coach Danny Park believed past Railer teams would not have come back. This season, Newton scored three in the fifth, two in the sixth and one in the seventh. Livesay drove in three runs, worked three innings and struck out six.
Afterward, both Park and Livesay believed an achievement was possible for Newton. The Railers had not won the ACVTL Division I championship in more than 15 seasons.
“That was definitely a turning point,” Livesay said. “We were like, ‘OK, we can be down in games and still come back and win, so that’s when I felt like we could have a title on our hands.”
Newton has not lost since.
The Railers reeled off 12 straight victories to complete the regular season. That included a 14-0 victory against a 17-win McPherson club. On May 10, Newton beat Maize 11-1 and 14-4 to close out the regular season and clinch the title. Kenzie Cusick finished 7-of-7 in the Maize doubleheader.
Newton carries a .450 team average and has girls throughout the order with both power and average. On Wednesday, Newton will host a regional that includes Maize (5-13), Hays High (13-7) and Andover Central (13-10).
“The team chemistry that this team has, like it doesn’t matter if we are down 5-0,” Livesay said. “It doesn’t matter if we are winning 10-0, the fight that this team has, just everybody gets along. We just really work well together, and that’s a big turning point from last year.”
Wednesday marks the second of two days for the bulk of regional softball and baseball competition throughout Kansas. Throughout the season, the 5A hegemony is clear with defending champion Bishop Carroll and returning runner-up Basehor-Linwood. The two squads are both undefeated. BC has returning 5A Player of the Year Kadence Brewster and a state-best 43-game winning streak. B-L has multiple stars, including Ohio State commit Taylor Cruse.
However, a major theme of the 2022 season is teams with limited to no state tradition, specifically softball, enjoying the best seasons in school history. Those squads could tilt of power throughout the classifications. Newton has one state softball title, an all-classes crown in 1985. Newton has not reached the state softball tournament since the mid-2000s.
“I want to get through regionals, and I want my girls to have a chance to see state,” Park said. “…I wouldn’t mind playing Basehor-Linwood, some of the Kansas City teams, get a shot at Bishop Carroll. Bishop Carroll, like them or not, I know they play in a weak conference, but they are just legit every year. But they are well-coached, they are very talented. It would be nice to see how we match up against somebody like that.”
While Newton has talent throughout the roster, Livesay’s dramatic improvement puts her on the short list for 5A Player of the Year – and for the best player in Kansas, all classes.
“Last year was really when I was like, ‘OK, I love softball, I need to get on my horse and I need to start working harder,’” Livesay said. “One big focus for me over the winter was the mental aspect of the game.
“Staying confident and staying calm and relaxed in the circle when things aren’t going my way and always not taking a batter off,” she added. “Just working really hard all the time, and I think that’s a big focus for our team, too. Not taking any time off. Just you play the game how you are supposed to play it. You don’t play down to anybody’s level. You play two levels ahead.”
Livesay is 15-0 with a 1.20 earned-run average has 228 strikeouts against 20 walks, a remarkable ratio. Livesay is believed to have the school single season strikeout record. She carries .485 average with 11 homers in a home park where fences are 230 feet. Most high school and college fields have 200-foot fences, including Wichita State University, where the Class 5A state tournament is held. Livesay hit two homers last season.
“They have paved the way for me,” Livesay said of the seniors. “I could not be where I am without them. Kennah, I love my bullpens with Kennah. Mackenzie Cusick, would not want anybody else to be my catcher. She hypes me up. She pushes me to be better. Olivia Sandoval, literally the best third baseman I have ever played with. I love her. And Gracie Rains, we play volleyball together also. She pushes me to be better on and off.”
The 5-foot-11 Livesay consistently hits 62-63 miles per hour. She has multiple junior college offers and has elicited Division I interest, including from North Dakota and some Division IIs. A National Scouting Report gave high praise of Livesay, including writing that she has the ability to “come in and be a No. 1 arm for a lot of programs.”
Her best pitch is her rise ball, which is generally considered the hardest offering to hit in softball. Livesay constantly works on her craft, including in the family gym downstairs. She lifts three to four times a week with an emphasis on front squats and cleans.
Sandoval, Livesay and Kenzie Cusick hit 3-4-5. Cusick carries a .500 average. Sophomore outfielder Reese McCord bats ninth, shows great speed and is hitting nearly .500.
Sandoval, whom Park labeled the “consummate team player” has been at a different position all four years.
Gracie Rains and McKenna rotate every other inning at first base. Sophomore Emma Rains and freshman Mackenzie Robertson have played second base. Sophomore Alyssa Mapes starts at shortstop, bats second and had two homers in a doubleheader versus Campus.
“We knew we had good players coming back,” Park said. “We had no idea how much Tegan would advance from last year to this year, but she is 200 percent better this year than she was last year. Now, in my opinion, she is the best pitcher we have seen all year, and she is the best pitcher in the area that we have seen. Tegan is what I call a shutdown pitcher. She holds teams at bay. You are not going to give up 10, 12 runs with Tegan on the mound.”
In 2-1A, Troy softball has a five-win improvement and reached state for the first time in program annals Wednesday. Troy is 20-0. Ell-Saline stands at 23-0. The Cardinals lost in the state quarterfinals last year, its first state trip since 2015.
Pittsburg-Colgan, the two-time defending state champion, is 11-12 after what several not familiar with the CNC would call a mild upset to win the Cherokee-Southeast regional – however it shows the strength of just how good this mostly 3A league is to rack up losses. The Panthers have had to find solutions through roster changes after the graduation of last years 2-1A POY, The Marietta twins, who have signed with St. Louis University, elected not to play their senior season. The shortstop moved out of state, the starting pitcher transferred to nearby Girard. Nice work by the Panthers to not let that rattle them in the postseason. We will have more stats on Colgan once they become available in the state preview next week.
In the highly anticipated St. Marys regional, Mission Valley improved to 19-2 with a 3-0 win versus Wabaunsee in the regional final. MV outscored its three regional opponents, 20-0. MV is a defending final four squad.
In 3A softball, Kingman defeated rival Cheney, 4-3. The Cardinals are the defending state champion. Kingman, which has never won a state softball game, has multiple stars, including Alex Schreiner and Aly Hageman. Kingman is 21-2 and set a school record for wins. The Eagles are 3-0 against Cheney this winter. Cheney led 3-1 entering the bottom of the second before Kingman tied in the inning.
Council Grove, a contender throughout the season, moved to 21-2 with a 6-1 win versus Halstead in a 3A regional. CG is at state for the first time since a quarterfinal loss in 2016. In the title game, CG senior Elle Dragone, a Harding (Ark.) signing, continue her player of the year-esque season with two homers. Karly Goodell also homered. Dragone has hit over .600 this year.
In 3A baseball, Columbus qualified for the first time in school history. Like Newton, Columbus went through tough times, including a winless season in 2017. Columbus semifinal win was highlighted by freshman Jack Vilela game winning RBI over Baxter. Seth Stover is a prospect on the rise in 3A and was dominant against Frontenac both times this season on the mound with his 6’6” size. Kolt Ungheuer is also having two all-state potential seasons of his own, one of the breakout players in 3A baseball and a 6–10 high jumper in track and field. Both are juniors.
In 4A softball, Clearwater, Andale-Garden Plain, Rock Creek and Clay Center all qualified from the West. Eudora and Bishop Miege came through on the East. Clearwater has enjoyed big seasons from Hayley Gerbering, KJ Herdman and Carli Carlson, among others. The Indians (21-1) are going to state for the first time since 2014, per KSHSAA.
In 4A baseball, Tonganoxie defeated reigning state champion Bishop Miege, 6-4, in the regional final. Iola beat returning 3A champion Rock Creek, 5-0, in a 4A regional final. Iola has really became a big baseball town over the last 10 plus years, which include a state title in 4A-II in recent memory. Jarrett Hermann is one of the top players in 4A along with Ryker Curry, Brandon McKarnin is also hitting over .500 with the other two to form a dominating trio of hitters this season for the Mustangs. Abilene comes back from 7-0 deficit to walk off an 8-7 victory over Andale/GP and their first ever state tournament appearance in 4A.
In 2-1A baseball, defending champion Sedgwick was upset by Whitewater-Remington in the regional semifinals. Marion lost to W-R, 8-5, in the regional & will advance to the 2-1A state tournament.
In 5A baseball it was no surprise to see Blue Valley Southwest dominate in their two games on the way back to repeat for their title last season. 14-0 win over Washington. Bybee 5 inn no hitter with 13 K’s. 5-2 win over St James. Christensen CG effort allowing 6 hits with 6 K’s and a BB. Kelly, Shinkle, Coats, with clutch RBI hits with key at bats.
At completion of Tuesday evening, here are the qualifiers across the state
6A- Washburn Rural, Derby, Olathe West, BVNW
5A- Seaman, Valley Center, Aquinas, BVSW, DeSoto, Shawnee Heights
4A: Iola, Tonganoxie, Paola, Abilene, McPherson, El Dorado
3A- Columbus, Halstead, Goodland
2-1A- Elkhart, Remington
Softball State Qualifiers after completion of Tuesday evening
6A- Gardner Edgerton, Olathe North
5A- Seaman, Valley Center, BVSW, Basehor Linwood, Spring Hill
4A- Eudora, Bishop Miege, Clearwater, Andale/Garden Plain, Rock Creek, Clay Center/Wakefield
3A- Frontenac, Prairie View, Scott City, Council Grove, Kingman,
2-1A: Ell-Saline, Bluestem, Central Heights, Troy, Colgan, Mission Valley, Spearville, Belle Plaine
Park was involved in Valley Center for 10-plus years, whether on the high school staff or in the summer program. Park elected to take over the Newton program in 2016.
Park inherited a Railer program that he labeled “definitely down.” The Railers’ last big season was a final four showing in ’05. Newton softball had not won a league softball title since ’04.
Newton didn’t win a game his first season. The second season, Newton won one contest. The third year, the Railers didn’t win a contest. Newton is in AVCTL Division I, a conference routinely paced by Derby and Maize. Newton had Celina Perez, a first team all-league outfielder as a senior in Park’s second season.
“We had good players, but we didn’t have enough of them,” he said. “And we didn’t have any type of pitching whatsoever. I mean, we had girls that tried their best.”
Many of the seniors played key roles as freshmen. Park noticed that Kennah Cusick had a “different type of speed” when she got into high school. Cusick was the team’s leading pitcher as a freshman in ’19. Plus, Gracie Rains was a catcher “with a cannon arm” as a freshman. She was the best home run hitter on the squad and blasted seven.
“Finally had some of the key pieces were we could compete,” Park said.
Newton won six games and ended a losing streak of more than 30 contests. After COVID cancelled 2020, the Railers posted an 11-11 mark last spring, including a run-rule victory versus Hays High in the regional semifinals. Newton led early, though lost to Goddard Eisenhower, an eventual state final four team. The Railers trailed 5-3 and had runners in scoring position, though couldn’t get them across.
“We were young, and we were tired at that point,” Park said. “And we just didn’t have that killer instinct yet to really finish, and we played their type of game, and they chipped away slowly.”
Rains didn’t complete the ’21 softball season because of volleyball conflicts. Park and Rains didn’t think she was going to play this year. About two weeks after tryouts, Rains came to Park and asked if there was anyway she could play. Rains couldn’t play in the season-opening Valley Center tournament.
Livesay had dramatically improved from ’21. That season, Park called her a “solid pitcher.” Park used Livesay to pitch the second game of doubleheaders against great players, such as Derby and Maize. Park believed Livesay would be more effective against the stars when they were tired. It worked as Newton split with Maize and Livesay in the circle.
This season, Livesay has thrown the bulk of the innings, especially in the second half of the year.
“Hands down the most complete team that I have had,” Park said. “And they are all club-type ball players, and that’s probably the real difference. Early on, I had a mixture of rec with a couple club players.”
Livesay still clearly remembers meeting Kelsey Stewart for the first time. In eighth grade, Livesay played competitive softball around the Wichita area. She joined the Stewarts going into sophomore year – and the competition level ratcheted up. Last fall, Livesay frequently played in Texas. This summer, they are in Florida, California and Nebraska.
“Oh my goodness,” Livesay said. “I will tell you the first time I walked in on tryout day, I was nervous as all get out. I was like, ‘Oh my goodness, this is an Olympian right here.’ But definitely playing under her has been a blessing. I love her and I love Chris Stewart, her dad, and Lori Stewart, her mom.
“They all do so much for me, and the program and everybody in the program,” she added. “They definitely elevated my game to that next level. They’ve pushed me like nobody else has pushed me. They allow me and my dad to go in the facility and throw a bullpen anytime that we want. They are basically big roles in where I improved from last year to this year.”
This winter, Livesay extensively worked with her dad and Stewart on the rise ball. Mechanically, Livesay worked on having her hips open, getting under the ball and snapping it hard at the bottom.
“That’s when it really became good,” Livesay said.
Livesay spent all winter with Chris Stewart in the batting cages, tweaking and fixing small mechanical changes.
“Like getting to contact point faster,” Livesay said. “Not moving my hands as much when I load, stuff like that. So props to him for making my swing 11 home runs this season, so that’s great.”
The last homer came in the Maize doubleheader and punctuated the historic moment for Newton. The Railers have the sixth-biggest turnaround for all classes from ’21 to ’22.
After the doubleheader against Maize, Park stood at home plate talking with longtime Maize coach Jenny Meirowsky. Park wanted to talk with Meirowsky about Bishop Carroll since the Eagles had seen BC. Then, the Maize coaches quickly jumped back. Park heard sounds behind him. Before he could turn around, Newton’s players gave him an ice cooler bath – the first of possibly three celebrations in the next 10 days with a regional and state championships in the mix.
“It was hot, and it probably took about three minutes to dry out that night, because it was so (darn) hot,” Park said. “But it felt good, and it was worth every minute of it. But I had no clue what was coming. Now I do enjoy watching the video now.”