By CONOR NICHOLL
In 1978, Valley Center captured the Class 3A track and field championship. The Hornets scored 60 points, 19 ahead of runner-up Chaparral. The competition was at Augusta instead of the usual Wichita State University site because of WSU renovations.
Jeanne Daniels paced a close-knit group with four top-three finishes, including a state record in the shot put. Daniels earned the state’s female athlete of the year honor and went on to compete in basketball and track at Kansas State. The women have sporadically held gatherings together throughout the decades, including one to celebrate the 39th year anniversary.
Entering this spring, that team remained the lone VC girls’ squad to capture a state championship in any sport. Boys picked up its only crown with a 5A tennis title in 2018.
Valley Center has had some close calls, including second place in 1997 and third in 2017 with softball. Coach Corey Jones has built a winning tradition in his 16 seasons with softball. He entered this spring with a 231-71 career record.
On rainy days, the Hornets had to practice in the gymnasium and viewed the banners. Jones said the players “didn’t even realize” the school’s historical success. Even Jones had limited knowledge of the ’78 squad.
“We ended up having a conversation about it, and they saw that as a challenge,” Jones said.
On Saturday, the 2022 Hornet softball team etched itself into Valley Center history with a memorable Class 5A state championship at Wichita State University. No. 4 seeded Valley Center opened with a 5-2 win against Spring Hill, a 9-1 victory versus league foe Goddard-Eisenhower and 4-1 eight-inning win versus Basehor-Linwood. VC lost in a walk-off to B-L in the ’21 state quarterfinals.
Third baseman Maci George, ranked No. 24 nationally by Extra Innings and a Division I North Texas commit, hit a third-inning grand slam to halt a 0-0 deadlock in the Eisenhower win. For the finals, George delivered a three-run eighth-inning homer. At state, George finished eight of 12 with nine RBI and four runs scored.
Valley Center went 23-2, including 20 straight wins to finish the season. VC lost to Derby on March 26, and then fell to Newton on March 31. Newton eventually lost, 1-0, to Basehor in the state semifinals and earned fourth.
In the last two springs, shortstop Lucy Hooper and George have batted first and second in the order and led the team in average each year. George finished with a .556 average, 10 homers and 44 RBI. Overall, she had more extra-base hits (27) than singles (13). Both girls have grown up in Valley Center and are likely going to shatter multiple team records.
“Have been best buddies for a long time,” Jones said.
Plus, Hooper and George helped carry an excellent defensive team. After the Newton loss, VC swept Eisenhower, 14-3 and 4-2, on April 8, wins that gave the girls confidence.
“We are good enough to compete with anybody,” Jones said.
Jones said the Hornets didn’t make an error from April 8 until the second game of state. In the three state games, VC committed four errors, opponents eight. Victoria Turner and Sykora Smith split the pitching. The lineup, including No. 8 hitter Mykah Klumpp and ninth batter Kennedy Johnson, came through multiple times. As well, Valley Center, which played its first 22 games on turf, had to quickly acclimate to the Wichita State’s dirt.
“Our left side is just unbelievable,” Jones said. “They have played softball their whole lives, but it’s just their softball IQ that helps. They always know which bag to throw it to.”
After four days of competition, the five baseball and five baseball state tournaments concluded Sunday night when Blue Valley West won the 6A baseball title with a 4-3 walk-off win versus Manhattan. Kyle Jones had a walk-off single.
Similar to Valley Center, many of the 10 championship teams had previous success, though finally enjoyed breakthroughs this year. Multiple squads returned after a 2021 state quarterfinal loss.
None of the titlists included Bishop Carroll or Silver Lake in softball or Pittsburg-Colgan or Blue Valley in baseball. Those four teams combined for an 0-2 state mark. BC, SL and Colgan have combined for 45 state titles, per the Kansas Sports Hall of Fame. Blue Valley had won five 6A crowns since ’14, including the last four. Bishop Ward, with 11 baseball titles, was third in 3A.
In baseball, Blue Valley West (23-3) won its second all-time championship, first since 2013. BVW was a state qualifier last season. In 5A, heavy favorite Blue Valley Southwest blitzed the field en route to a 19-6 season and second consecutive title. BVW’s Jackson Lovich earned Kansas Baseball Coaches Association 6A Player of the Year. BVSW’s Charlie Christensen picked up 5A Pitcher of the Year.
In 4A, veteran coach Heath Gerstner guided McPherson to a state runner-up in ’15 and a school record 18 wins last season. McPherson finished 23-3 and won the first state title in school annals with a 5-2 finals win versus Tonganoxie. Bullpup star Hunter Alvord shared 4A Player of the Year honors.
In 3A, Wichita Collegiate went 23-1 and defeated Columbus, 10-3, in the championship. Girard took fourth. Collegiate lost in the state quarterfinals in ’21. Columbus and Girard both had the best seasons in school annals. Collegiate’s Hayden Malaise was 3A Pitcher of the Year.
In 2-1A, Mission Valley swept baseball and softball titles. Per KSHSAA, it marked the first time since Bishop Carroll in 2012 that a school swept baseball and softball in the same year. Mission Valley (23-1) won the first baseball title in school annals. MV softball, a third-place team last year, won its third state softball title after ’01 and ’03 and went 23-2. Mission Valley had three all-time state championships in all team sports before this weekend.
In 3A, Frontenac captured its third softball title since 2016. The Raiders emerged from a closely packed field and finished 23-3. In the regional semifinals, Frontenac defeated Girard, 10-0. The Raiders had split with Girard in the regular season. Frontenac fell in the ’21 quarterfinals.
In 4A, Eudora went 23-2 and defeated Bishop Miege, 4-2, in the finals. Eudora won the first state softball state championship in program annals. Eudora had lost in the quarterfinals last season. This year, ace Kira Baker went 3-0 and struck out 31 against six walks. Baker permitted 14 hits and four runs. Katie Courter hit .600 with a homer and five runs scored.
In 6A, Topeka High won its second consecutive softball title. THS, behind a gritty performance from ace Nija Canady, went 22-3 with a 2-1 finals win against rival Washburn Rural. Topeka had lost two games versus WR this season.
Canady is the reigning Kansas Gatorade Player of the Year and signed with Stanford. At state, Canady worked 17.2 innings, struck out 32 against six walks. She permitted five hits and one earned run.
Valley Center had to navigate through a highly difficult 5A softball state tournament. Five of the seven state games were decided by one run and/or extra innings. The winning team scored four runs or less in six of the seven contests. Bishop Carroll had defeated Basehor-Linwood for the 5A state championship in ’21. Both teams entered state undefeated. Carroll carried a 45-game winning streak, Kansas’ longest current run. In the quarters, Eisenhower beat BC, 2-1.
The state tournament marked the first time the Hornets played on dirt. While WSU has a higher quality dirt field, Valley Center couldn’t practice on the surface. VC found a dirt field, though it rained Tuesday-Wednesday-Thursday. Valley Center played in the state quarterfinals Friday. VC had one practice on dirt all season.
In addition to Hooper and George, Morgan Thatcher was at second, Smith played pitcher and first. When Smith pitched, Korah Nash was at first. Ainsley Kraus started left field. Victoria Turner played pitcher and centerfield. Klumpp was in center and right. Johnson and Alyssa Crumbliss were key players, too.
During the season, Turner pitched the first game of doubleheaders, and Smith threw the second. While many teams relied on one pitcher at state, Valley Center continued to use two. At state, Turner worked 8.2 innings and allowed two earned runs. Smith pitched 13.1, including a complete game in the championship. Smith, who had a 5-1 record and 2.44 ERA last season, did not allow an earned run at state. Overall, Valley Center had 97 total chances at state, committed just four errors and had three double plays.
Valley Center faced league foe Goddard-Eisenhower in the 5A state semifinals Saturday. The game was scoreless entering the bottom of the third before George homered.
“It gave us all the momentum,” Jones said. “…That seemed to kind of really take the wind out of Eisenhower. It was a close game.”
Last season, Valley Center lost to Basehor-Linwood when Taylor Cruse delivered a walk-off hit. Cruse, B-L’s ace pitcher and leadoff hitter, has committed to Ohio State. In the semifinals against Newton, Railer ace Tegan Livesay intentionally walked Cruse while throwing a no-hitter in a 0-0 game. In the final, Cruse went 0 of 1 with three walks, including one in the bottom of the seventh and the game tied at one.
“We just played it safe, and said, ‘OK, this girl is not going to beat us,’” Jones said. “But we are going to make somebody else beat us.”
Valley Center continually made contact. Cruse struck out just one batter. She recorded 11 strikeouts in her first 14 state innings.
Plus, Jones said Klumpp and Johnson, who hit eighth and ninth, “really stepped it up” in the state tournament.
Johnson went 4 for 9 at state. Johnson had struggled at the plate after a big 2021. Valley Center had allowed her to hit in the first game of doubleheaders and used a DH in the second contest. In the state quarterfinal win against Spring Hill, she had a key single and hit the ball hard. Jones elected to give her another chance in the semifinals versus Eisenhower. Then, she collected a double, single and hit batsmen.
“She kind of earned those at-bats, believe it or not,” Jones said. “By playing well in the first two games.”
In the eighth, Klumpp walked and Johnson singled to lead off the inning to set the state for George’s heroics.
“Which allowed Maci to have the grand slam and then the three-run homer,” Jones said. “Those girls were on base. That’s what sometimes you forget when a girl hits a grand slam, she is the hero, but her (multiple) teammates were on base for that to happen, so that’s cool, too.”