By CONOR NICHOLL
Three to four weeks before the season opener, Wichita Trinity head softball coach Steve Cross and his team studied the Book of Samuel from the Old Testament. The Knights read David and Goliath and other stories. Cross told his team of just 10 players and zero seniors to develop a rallying theme.
Cross, a highly successful travel softball coach, is the co-founder of Kansas Premier Softball. He coached a 12-under team to a 2019 national championship. Cross took over the restart of Trinity softball, a program with very limited success and multiple coaching changes, before 2020. The school did not have softball in 2019.
The first season was cancelled because of the pandemic. Year 2 produced an 0-19 mark in a league and regional that featured eventual 3A state champion Cheney. Last spring yielded a 5-15 record for a school known much more for soccer and track in the spring than softball.
This year, Trinity has two juniors, outfielders Klara Robertson and Cross’ daughter, junior shortstop Courtney Cross. Four sophomores are on the team: infielder/catcher Ava Lay, first baseman Avery Pickard, center fielder Regan Allen and outfielder Jessica Velazquez-Wallace.
The Knights have four freshmen: outfielder Isabel Velazquez-Wallace and three elite players: third baseman/catcher Madison Cross and pitchers Dominique Schellenger and Liberty Lewis.
Cross wanted the girls to come up with the 2023 theme. It took a couple weeks. The girls knew the Knights might be small in numbers but are “very mighty.”
“The turning point for them to really take that group together,” Cross said.
Plus, Trinity was inspired by University of Oklahoma softball, the current dynasty under coach Patty Gasso. OU is known for its rowing motion after big plays and reaching base. The rowing motion comes from Matthew 14:22-23 when the disciples see when Jesus walks on the water. OU’s rowing motion was showcased on national television last spring when the Sooners won its sixth national title under Gasso.
Trinity’s symbol to each other is a slingshot pull, akin to David’s slingshot to defeat Goliath.
“A small number of us, but we can still do great things,” Cross said. “And so that’s kind of what they modeled themselves around.”
Plus, Trinity will put up four fingers when something good happens on the field. The four fingers stand “For Him.”
“What better way to let each other know something that we can wrap ourselves around and kind of unite,” Cross said.
The symbols have helped Trinity has become one of Kansas’ top breakout softball programs – and should have significant staying power the next couple springs. Trinity swept Chaparral on Thursday with 9-0 and 13-0 victories and improved to 8-0.
The Knights also have a pair of wins against Hesston, Medicine Lodge and Council Grove. Trinity is part of the Cheney regional that also includes the powerhouse host Cardinals (6-0), longtime stalwart Haven (6-0) and Kingman, 7-1 and a 2022 state qualifier. Trinity and Haven baseball remain undefeated, too. Trinity softball normally has 14-15 players.
“Our 10 girls are very tight-knit,” Cross said.
Batting-wise, Courtney Cross leads with a .588 average, followed by Allen with .538 and Robertson at .529. Every regular has at least a .357 mark.
“Tremendous centerfielder for a sophomore,” coach Cross said of Allen.
Madison Cross has a .400 average and already has significant Division I interest. Known for her calm demeanor and leadership personality, she can play anywhere on the field, except pitcher. Lay and Madison Cross have split the catching duties to keep Madison healthy for catching in the travel season.
“Right now, she’s probably the most athletic on the team overall, just fully overall softball,” coach Cross said of Madison. “Not maybe the fastest or something like that, but the overall most athletic on the team, but she can go anywhere, play anywhere on the field.”
Overall, the team is hitting .450 with a .532 on-base percentage and .574 slugging mark. Isabel Velasquez and Liberty Lewis both have four doubles. Lay has 11 steals, and Schellenger has homered.
Cross called Lay’s speed “freakish fast” with 30-plus steals in ’22. Lay plays half second base and half catcher and shows high softball IQ. On the bases, she can read spins and speeds and get good jumps.
“Ava Lay is also a tremendous athlete,” Cross said.
In the circle, the right-handed Lewis, helped by a curveball and cutter, has 40 strikeouts and a 0.64 earned-run average in 22 innings. Lewis has thrown for well-known 316 Elite on the travel scene.
“I would say her biggest attribute again is she has got a tremendous amount of movement on her pitches,” Cross said. “The speed is going to keep getting stronger for her as she grows – and she is already a strong kid – but she has got a lot of experience.”
Schellenger, a 6-foot left-hander, has 25.2 innings with 29 strikeouts. Schellenger pitches for Tulsa Elite. She is known for her athleticism, strength, speed changes and great changeup. Schellenger threw her first shutout in the 9-0 Chaparral win. Lewis worked her first no-hitter in the second contest. Schellenger and Lewis mainly play third when not pitching.
Madison Cross and Lay were on the 12-under national title team. Coach Cross believes this is already the best freshman class in Trinity softball history.
“We do have a very strong freshman class that has come in, and that has made a big impact as far as the experience,” Cross said. “They are freshmen, but they do come with a lot of experience, and it’s been definitely a change. We knew it was coming.”
Coach Cross had multiple conversations with Courtney earlier in her career when Trinity was struggling with run-rule losses. Courtney was used to winning at a high level in travel ball. She asked, “Dad, what did we get ourselves into?” He assured his daughter, “be patient, the best is yet to come.” Courtney continued to push the younger girls to see the same vision of future success.
“If we can get through this, we know there is going to be brighter moments, and we are going to put together the best softball team Trinity has ever seen – and eventually we want to compete for a state title with this group as they keep getting older,” coach Cross said.
Cross has coached Texas Glory softball the last several summers, a team that has top players from the Wichita area, including Karlie Demel and Raegan Jackson from Derby, and Izzy Pfannenstiel from Bishop Carroll. From Sept. 21 to Feb. 2023, Texas Glory played in eight tournaments and won five.
Several years ago, Cross knew some people within the Trinity system. He become aware of the constant churn of softball coaches. Trinity wanted a coach who could stay the course during tough times. Cross had some other potential opportunities with winning programs but liked the challenge of taking over something brand-new.
“Even the AD at the current time was like, ‘Well, it’s going to be a lot, I hope you know what you are getting into,’” Cross said. “I said, ‘No, that’s fine.’”
Cross preached the team had to be strong as a unit and strong as a group. He continually preached the vision of competing at a high level and “forget the chatter” about the history of Trinity softball.
“I would tell the girls, ‘Hey, you know what, girls aren’t coming out for softball. Softball has always been an afterthought at this school, at Trinity, because you have got soccer, you have got track,” Cross said. “And so the girls who came out for softball…they came out for softball because it was just something to do.”
Last season, Cross believed the “family-type unit” was formed. Trinity, like most especially urban and/or private schools, has girls who did not grow up together and sometimes don’t know each other that well.
With limited pitching, Trinity struggled to compete against Cheney and Kingman, though was much more competitive in other games and opened 4-2 in 2022.
“That’s when we will take it to the next level is once we all by in and we come tight as a team,” Cross said.
Cross had team dinners and other activities to help the girls know each other better. One assignment was to find something out about another player that wasn’t previously known. The Knights learned from coach Cross that he loved history. The bonding and talent has yielded an undefeated start.
“It opened them up to the personal side that they are a lot like me, and they have their own hobbies and things outside the sport,” Cross said. “They just became really, really tight as a group, and the freshman group has come in and they’ve kind of just molded right in, and they have accepted their roles as freshmen. But I think they are leading even at sometimes like a senior would lead.”