By CONOR NICHOLL
Olathe Northwest softball posted 13-9 records in 2021 and 2022. Last spring, the Ravens had three long-term injuries that helped shape the season. First baseman Paige White, now playing at Mid-America Nazarene, suffered a torn labrum. Lily Winright, who would have been the starting catcher as a freshman, was out significantly with a back injury. Claire Lopez was hurt during the year.
Northwest finished 1-3 in one-run games.
“Things didn’t quite go our way,” coach Shawn Lopez said.
A challenging schedule yielded a pair of losses to Topeka High and Washburn Rural, the eventual 6A champion and runner-up. Plus, NW fell to league foes Shawnee Mission North and Olathe North, along with a one-run non-conference loss to 5A Spring Hill. That trio all made state. Northwest played multiple freshmen and sophomores. The slate helped ONW prepare for 2023.
“Teaching the younger kids the speed of the game and how to play at a high level,” Lopez said.
A year later, Olathe Northwest has enjoyed a 20-0 regular season and Sunflower League championship, generally considered the state’s best softball conference. ONW is ranked No. 1 in 6A in the Kansas media rankings. The Ravens won league for the sixth time in school history. Northwest, and a pair of 2-1A teams, McLouth and Arma-Northeast, are the lone undefeated squads in Kansas. Northwest has 19 on-field victories and a season-opening forfeit against Lawrence Free State.
Northwest is 5-0 in one-run games and has three walk-off victories; April 13 against Spring Hill, April 18 versus Shawnee Mission North and this Monday versus Topeka.
The Ravens had the biggest year-over-year wins improvement of those three undefeated teams. Northwest has made 11 state appearances and captured three titles, a perfect season in ’09, plus ’11 and ’17. Northwest has the No. 1 seed in 6A East. Seven Ravens are three-year starters, including a senior trio. Regional play starts Monday.
Lopez served as a head baseball coach from ’08-19 at two Kansas City area schools before he took over Olathe Northwest. He has coached in the well-known KC Peppers travel softball for seven years. Lopez, from Topeka, played college baseball at Johnson County CC and the College of Charleston.
Junior third baseman Kendall Yarnell is among the state’s most well-known multi-sport athletes. Yarnell’s dad and Lopez grew up in Topeka together. While they attended different high schools, they each worked at the same summer job at an athletic complex taking care of fields.
They coincidentally currently live in the same neighborhood. Known for her incredible raw power, Yarnell carries a .491 average with 22 extra base hits, 13 homers, and 37 RBI. She holds the school record of 29 homers and broke Reagan Hathaway’s school mark of 24. Hathaway, a two-time high school All-American, became the second softball player in the ONW hall of fame and enjoyed a solid career at Texas.
Yarnell is the reigning Sunflower League player of the year and has committed to Division I Central Florida softball. She is also sixth in the discus for all classes with a throw of 133 feet, 7 inches, per Kansas historian Carol Swenson’s statewide list. In a 19-7 victory Tuesday against Olathe North, Yarnell crushed a homer. The ball was still going up and banged off a light pole beyond the outfield fence. Yarnell delivered the walk-off double to beat Spring Hill.
“You sit and watch her hit, and you do it with your eyes closed, and you just hear the difference of the ball coming off of her bat,” Lopez said. “It sounds different, and it’s incredible.”
Senior Claire Lopez, a Butler County CC signing and starting second baseman, has batted third in the lineup and carries a .443 average. Claire plays similarly to her dad did during his playing days – speed and aggressive baserunning. She broke the school record of 32 steals.
The previous mark was 30 from Madi Young, a former Kansas Gatorade Player of the Year, in ’16. She has worked on getting quality jumps and reading the pitch; looking for a bobble from the catcher, a lolly-pop throw back to the pitcher, the low changeup in the dirt that yields steals. At times, Lopez has delayed stole. Claire has enjoyed playing for her dad and vice versa.
“She does some things on her own,” coach Lopez said. “I don’t call everything. She kind of has the green light to do whatever she wants. She is smart, too, and that’s what kind of makes her well-rounded is she understands the game. We talk about it at home, and it’s not obsessively. I let her come to me with stuff.”
Senior center fielder Madison Fabia, a cheerleader and trackster, has signed with Emporia State softball. A slapper, she has a .344 average and by far a team-best 24 walks as the leadoff hitter.
Ashlyn Gaughan, another college softball prospect, has a .343 average in the No. 2 hole. The trio bats before Yarnell in the four-hole. Gaughan had the walk-off to beat Topeka in extra innings. Gaughan is on the track team. Per a Perfect Game scouting report, the 5-foot-6 junior has shown above-average to excellent speed and sound arm strength.
“Ashlyn Gaughan has done a tremendous job at shortstop,” Lopez said.
A huge win came in a 2-1 extra-inning victory against Shawnee Mission North and ace Kelsey Hoekstra on April 10. Lopez delivered a walk-off double on a full count.
Hoekstra has 10 shutouts and a 0.91 ERA this season. On April 4, ONW beat Olathe West, 16-12. OW (19-1), SMN (16-4) and Olathe North (15-5) are the second, third and fourth 6A East seeds. ON beat Manhattan, 6-2, in the regular season finale Wednesday. Manhattan entered Friday 14-4 and top-four in 6A West.
“Like having three leadoff hitters before you start to get to the power bats,” Lopez said.
Lopez pointed to the team’s growth. This marks the first time since he took over four years that Olathe Northwest does not have any freshmen playing at the varsity level. ONW had been heavy on the younger side. This team is older and more mature.
“I think that’s helped a lot as well,” Lopez said. “We have got strong leadership this year as well. …More mature at-bats, and the negative things that are happening in the game, any given game, an error or just something doesn’t go your way, or whatever it is, it’s not affecting us as much.”
Olathe Northwest has the same three pitchers as last season. It’s rare, even at the 6A level, for three hurlers to see similar time in the circle.
“That’s where it kind of all starts,” Lopez said.
Coach Lopez has liked using multiple pitchers. Bre Severino has worked 51 innings, posted an 8-0 record, and struck out 91 with a 2.06 ERA. She plays first base when not pitching and has posted a .422 average. Anna Stesia Ballew has a 7-0 mark in 40 innings with 27 Ks against nine walks.
Senior Lilly Fisher has 34 innings with four wins and 46 strikeouts. Severino is headed to Division I Ball State, Fisher to Kansas City-Kansas Community College. ONW has three other pitchers who see limited to no time because of the depth. Lopez has generally used a baseball mentality with a starter and reliever. All three pitchers give different looks and complement each other well.
“A lot of schools don’t have the option,” coach Lopez said. “They have one pitcher, and they have to throw all, or they have no chance.”
A key turning point came with sophomore catcher Lily Winright returned after she missed the majority of last season with a back injury. She would have started behind the plate as a freshman. Yarnell, who had to catch last season, moved back to her natural position of third base.
Winright delivered her school record 169th putout with the last batter in the regular season finale, breaking the mark of 168 that had stood since 2010. Lopez labeled Winright “tremendous” behind the plate. Winright has improved her plate discipline, tied the school single season doubles record with 11 and carries a .453 average.
“Does a great job,” Lopez said.
Kendall Williams has started in left field. Sophomore Hannah Butterbaugh has recently started in left, including the regular season finale. Kennedy Glassford, another track athlete, plays in right field and carries a .456 average in the six-hole. Severino hits fifth and Winright seventh. Val Galligan has five homers in 14 games. She is third in Kansas in the shot put (42-0.5), eighth in the discus (129-10) and sixth in the javelin (school record 139-0). Galligan is the defending state champion in the event. She also took third at state wrestling.
“It goes nine deep,” Lopez said. “And it’s hard for pitchers to catch their breath a little bit.”
The deeper lineup has yielded a significant increase in offense. Northwest tallied 6.4 runs a contest in 2022. This year, ONW is up to 10.8 runs a game, which is tops in 6A East. Overall, Olathe Northwest is a top-two team for all classes via MaxPreps’ statewide statistical rankings. Northwest has continually worked pitchers, which has allowed for later-inning runs.
Of the team’s 587 at-bats, Northwest has seen 4.4 pitches per plate appearance. In 15 percent of at-bats, ONW has gotten two strikes – and then seen at least another three pitches. The Ravens have focused on each at-bat and not swinging at bad pitches.
“Their pitch count gets higher,” Lopez said. “They get tired, and even some of these workhorses that have that stamina that throw 150 or more pitches in a game, those last 25 to 50 pitches, they are a little flatter or a little slower, a little less sharp. We are patient enough to wait and battle early and figure things out, and if we have to score late to win games, we are able to do that.”