By CONOR NICHOLL
Holcomb junior Rian Rodriguez is the youngest of four siblings. She has two older brothers. Notably, Chance Rodriguez enjoyed a prolific career for the Longhorns. He was a first team all-state wide receiver in football and catcher in basketball, plus a pair of top-three state wrestling showings. Rodriguez was a key member of three state titles, two football and one baseball, for Holcomb. He played college football at Emporia State.
Chance is six years older than Rian. When she was in first grade, Rian’s parents started her in catching, the same position as Chance.
“They kind of helped me become the person I am,” Rian said of her siblings.
Rian first caught Korryn Johnson in junior high. They both entered high school together in 2021, part of a highlighted freshman Longhorn class that achieved a big turnaround, won 20 games and advanced to the 3A state tournament.
This spring, the pair paced Holcomb to its first-ever GWAC softball title and a 19-1 record after Monday’s quarterfinal and semifinal games in the 3A Scott City regional. In the quarterfinal, Johnson threw a no-hitter, her first of the season and fourth of career, in a 7-0 victory versus Lakin.
In the semifinal, Holcomb avenged its lone loss this season with a 5-1 win against Cimarron. Rodriguez delivered a pair of key doubles. Johnson cleared 600 career strikeouts. Rodriguez, a returning second team all-state catcher, has caught every single one of Johnson’s career strikeouts. Rodriguez, Johnson and junior shortstop Emma Cornelsen are known for eating, sleeping and breathing softball.
Johnson, who holds offers from NOC-Enid and Johnson County CC and is a two-time all-state pick, is known for her arsenal and changing speeds with her fastball, screwball, change, rise and drop ball. The right-handed Johnson routinely throws in the high 50s.
After Monday, Johnson leads Kansas in strikeouts and has a sizable lead in innings pitched. No current pitcher-catcher battery in the state has worked more together than Johnson and Rodriguez.
“It’s become like a really good bond between us,” Rodriguez told SIK last Friday. “We have our little arguments sometimes, but just little tough love. Other than (that), pretty nice, because I get to understand what she likes to throw and everything, since I call the games, and we kind of read each other’s minds.”
Like her brother, Rodriguez has delivered a prolific high school career for Holcomb. Last fall, the 5-foot-6 Rodriguez easily paced the Longhorns in blocks for a 29-12 volleyball team. In wrestling, she is 44-17 with a state qualification the past two winters. Rodriguez is already Holcomb’s career home run leader. Jennifer Barrett, Holcomb’s head volleyball and softball coach, labeled Rodriguez “super tough” and “truly dedicated” to her craft.
“Truly them growing together the last three years is I think in my opinion what makes them so special is because they have been allowed to grow together and mature together both in their skills and their ability,” Barrett said.
A 145-pound weight class wrestler, Rodriguez can bench 110, clean 135 and squat 175. Johnson and Rodriguez are part of a group of Holcomb girls known for great attitudes and work ethic. The day after they clinched GWAC softball, the girls were in the weight room by 7 a.m. Rodriguez recorded 100 percent summer weight attendance. Johnson and Rodriguez both played for 316 Elite out of Wichita on the travel circuit. Rodriguez has no college offers, though would like to continue playing after high school.
On Tuesday, Holcomb will travel to rival Scott City (15-7) for the regional final. Two years ago, Holcomb beat SC in the regional title. Last season, SC won the regional title versus the Longhorns. Holcomb swept the regular season doubleheader, 3-2 and 6-1, on April 13. SC features top ace Cheyenne Cramer.
In softball, the pitcher generally receives most of the credit/publicity. Not every conference names positions on its all-league teams. However, of those leagues that do name positions, 88 pitchers earned first or second all-conference in 2022. Just 40 catchers did. The KCAL did not name any catcher all-league and named other positions.
Five conferences named more than one catcher first team all-league: GWAC, Heart of America, North Central Kansas, Southeast Kansas, and Eastern Kansas League, per SIK research.
However, Rodriguez is part of a group of elite and highly critical catchers who should have a massive impact on regionals this week and state next week.
Like Rodriguez, many, especially Eisenhower’s Karlee Ford and 5A top-ranked Basehor-Linwood’s Adelyn Thom, are exceptional athletes and weight lifters.
Rodriguez has a strong case for first team all-state 3A catcher – and possibly, depending on the next 10 days, 3A’s top non-pitcher. Top teams have used their catcher(s) in different roles. Regionals continue Tuesday and Wednesday across Kansas.
“Like literally, I would have to drag her off the field I think to take her out,” Barrett said. “She catches non-stop, whether she gets banged up, or she is sore or she is hurting.”
For the last several years, SIK has named its All-Underrated football team and All-Underrated/top defensive players in girls’ basketball. In volleyball, the libero is often overlooked. In a similar vein, the catcher is sometimes softball’s most underrated position. Only the pitcher and catcher touch the ball on every play.
Last season, coaches association named 26 catchers all-state, either first, second or honorable mention. A couple classes didn’t have any honorable mention catchers honored.
Of those 26, 11 returned to catching this spring. More all-state pitchers returned for 2023 than catchers. Rodriguez was the only one of the six 3A all-state catchers back.
(Goddard-Eisenhower’s Ford is among the state’s best 2023 catchers and was second all-state utility/DP in 5A, the lone catcher all state at another spot. She leads 15-5 Eisenhower, the No. 4 seed in 5A West, with a .471 average and 33 runs).
After Monday, Holcomb had permitted 28 total runs and won 14 straight contests. Last season, the Longhorns allowed 56 runs in 23 games. The run prevention comes in part to Rodriguez’s catching. Rodriguez carries a .413 average, five homers, 11 steals and a .971 field percentage; the latter four marks led the team. Johnson has a 0.52 season earned-run average.
“Done a really, really good job of getting her body in front of the ball,” Barrett said. “And keeping it in front her, and quite honestly, most teams are pretty scared to run on Rian.”
The returning all-state catchers have put up big numbers.
Plus, several teams, notably 5A Hays High (15-5, WAC champs), 4A Mulvane (15-5), 3A defending champion Frontenac (17-3), 3A Columbus (18-2), 3A Wichita Trinity Academy (18-2) and 6A Olathe Northwest (20-0) have its catcher as its best player and/or an extremely pivotal piece in a big turnaround. The catchers for that sextant should earn all-state at some level.
Hays High sophomore Lakyn Zimmerman hit .452 as a freshman and .388 this season. She already has more than 200 putouts in her career. Zimmerman has helped Aubree Thomas become the WAC player of the year frontrunner.
Mulvane’s Madison Phipps moved from shortstop to catcher before last season. Mulvane coach Jesse Kollmeyer told SIK that Phipps’ positional switch was “probably the best move that we have made in the last four years.”
Mulvane snapped a 27-game losing streak in 2021. Mulvane will now host a 4A West Regional. Phipps has a .400 average and easily paces the Wildcats with 13 extra base hits. Phipps has 137 and 151 putouts the last two falls, the most for a Mulvane player since 167 in 2011. Phipps has caught well-known ace Jalin Lavers.
“It proved to be an awesome decision, because she is throwing runners out left and right, and it’s one of those positions that we really lacked on,” Kollmeyer said earlier this spring. “We knew Jalin in the circle was going to be something special, but we needed something special behind the plate.”
Frontenac senior Kaitlyn Hayslip has enjoyed a big year at catcher for the Raiders. After a 7-1 start, Frontenac coach Cassie Rhuems was highly pleased with Hayslip. Of Frontenac’s seven returning position players, Hayslip’s .328 average in 2022 was solid, but still the second-lowest. She made one error last year.
Frontenac and rival Columbus are expected to meet up in the Columbus regional final. Columbus has senior Addison Saporito behind the plate. Hayslip and Saporito were the CNC’s first and second all-league picks respectively in 2022.
“She has probably been the best player for us this season, and it’s really awesome for her, and it’s great for us to see that coming from her, because that’s not been her role the past three seasons,” Rhuems said earlier this spring.
Trinity Academy was winless in ’21 and won five games last season. The Knights have its well-publicized improvement with 10 players, four highly touted freshmen and zero seniors. Ava Lay and Madison Cross have split the catching duties. Coach Steve Cross said Madison can “play anywhere on the field.” Lay, known for her speed and athleticism, plays half of the games at second and half catcher. Madison is hitting .448, Lay at .424.
Trinity is part of the great Cheney regional that includes Haven (21-1), Cheney (18-2) and the Knights.
Notably, ONW is the lone undefeated team in 3-6A softball. Last season, Kendall Yarnell was 6A honorable mention all-state catcher and Sunflower League Player of the Year. She caught because then-freshman Lily Winright suffered a significant back injury.
“It was going to be her job as a freshman,” ONW coach Shawn Lopez said.
This season, Yarnell, a Division I Central Florida commit, moved back to her natural position of third base.
Winright has tied the school record for single season doubles (11) and set the record by one for putouts (169). Lopez has been highly pleased with Winright, including offensively especially with “all the wear and tear” a catcher takes on her legs. Olathe Northwest is trying to become the second undefeated 6A champion since ONW accomplished the feat in 2009.
“She’s had a tremendous year, and she blocks, just handles the pitching staff, just does a great job,” Lopez said.
In 2-1A, Bucklin’s Halie Feikert is a returning first team selection. Mission Valley’s Kyplee Jacobson and Ellis’ Hannah Schiel were both second team all-state picks.
Bucklin, which co-ops with Coldwater-South Central, is 14-6. Feikert has enjoyed another massive season with a .667 average, 14 homers, 51 RBI, 45 runs and 40 hits, all team bests. She has 45 extra base hits in the last two springs. Bucklin headlines the Elkhart regional.
The Ellis regional is highly intriguing and features the 13-7 Railers, along with county rival Thomas More Prep-Marian (13-7). Ell-Saline is the top seed at 15-3. Schiel is second in batting at .500, trailing EHS ace Kaydawn Haag and Fort Hays softball commit (.561). Schiel has six homers and a team-high 43 RBI. Schiel catches Haag.
When second pitcher Alyssa Rome in the circle, Schiel is at first base, and Jennifer Cunningham is the catcher. Veteran Ellis coach Casey McCoy always uses two catchers. As a sophomore, Schiel was the second catcher behind then-senior Morgan Bittel. Last year, Schiel hit .400 with a homer and 22 RBI. Schiel is one of three seniors for EHS softball.
“Hannah has been very good behind the plate,” McCoy said.
Jacobson helped Mission Valley to a 2-1A state title in 2022. She has helped MV navigate a different ’23 when ace Morgan Tomlinson, one of Kansas’ best players for all classes, suffered a season-ending knee injury in early season.
MV stands at 12-7 and the second seed in the Wabaunsee regional. Jacobson has enjoyed a huge season and leads MV in nearly all categories, including .431 average, .455 on-base percentage, six homers and five steals. She has made one error and helped freshman Maddie Kraus navigate a 3.80 ERA with 95 strikeouts in 73.2 innings. Kraus has been pressed into No. 1 status after Tomlinson’s injury. Jacobson has a great arm, too.
“Pretty well shuts down the running game,” Mission Valley coach Roger Converse said this spring.
In 4A, four of the five all-state catchers returned. Eudora sophomore Reese Pattison was first team all-state for the state champion Cardinals. Holton senior Timber Wilson was first team and has committed to Division II Northwest Missouri. Chanute’s Grace Thompson collected honorable mention.
Eudora graduated Kira Baker, the 4A pitcher of the year, and still stands at 13-5 and a top-four seed in 4A East. Holton finished 12-6, and Chanute 12-8. Wilson paces Holton with a .545 average. For 5A, returning second team all-state pick Teelie Super of Bonner Springs has committed to Central Missouri.
In 6A, two-time defending champion Topeka High returned first team all-state pick Alecia Alvarez. Derby is 19-1 and has the top seed in 6A West. Trinity Kuntz is a returning first team all-state pick for the Panthers. She is a West Texas A&M commit. Kuntz helped Addy Canfield hit 100 strikeouts in her junior season and 200 in her career.
Silver Lake (18-2), Wamego (15-1) and Basehor-Linwood (18-2) have generally been considered the top teams in 3A, 4A and 5A, respectively. SL will likely again face longtime rival Rossville (12-4) in its own regional final.
Wamego will likely again deal with all-sports rival Bishop Miege in its 4A regional. The pair continually meets up in regional/state for volleyball, basketball and softball. B-L headlines a regional that features St. Thomas Aquinas (12-8).
The 4A and 5A regionals for those teams is Tuesday. SL’s regional starts Tuesday and continues Wednesday. Silver Lake has its excellent pitching duo of junior Avery Wende, a Division I prospect, and sophomore Kendra Cook.
The two have posted nearly identical stats the last two seasons. In 2022, Cook had a 2.89 ERA, Wende 3.10. This year, both have thrown 58 innings, per SIK research and GameChanger stats. Wende has 50 strikeouts and 44 baserunners allowed. Cook has 58 strikeouts, 45 baserunners. SL needed a new catcher this season, and freshman Taylor Swygart has stepped in and performed admirably, especially with defense, handling velocity and holding baserunners. Swygart has either batted ninth or been flexed.
Sophomore Adelyn Thom has handled catching for B-L and replaced a multi-year all-conference selection. Wamego has used two catchers for its second straight year for its Division I talents Peyton Hardenburger and Maya Gallagher. Kyra Olberding catches Hardenburger, and Jordan Diehl handles Gallagher. The catchers spent some time with the respective pitchers in the younger ranks. Coach Luke Meyer calls the pitches. Wamego has permitted 38 runs and one stolen base all season. Both have been solid defensive catchers and offensive contributors. For the second straight season, Hardenburger has yet to allow an earned run entering the postseason. No one has finished a complete Kansas high school season without permitting an earned run, per the Kansas Sports Hall of Fame.
Rodriguez’s game day snack is usually raspberries and blackberries from her coach.
“I like to drink energy drinks on game days, which is probably not the smartest thing,” Rodriguez said. “I don’t usually eat, but Barrett usually brings me some berries to fill up on.”
Holcomb posts a scouting report in the dugout for each opponent batter. After the pregame bullpen session, Johnson and Rodriguez generally talk for a few minutes. Rodriguez has always called the pitches for Johnson. On Tuesday, the chemistry helped navigate jams in the fifth and sixth inning against Cimarron in the regional semifinal on a blustery mid-May night that forced many Longhorns and Bluejays to don hoodies.
Johnson had the tying run on base in the sixth inning and coaxed a force out to end the threat. She finished with 14 strikeouts against zero walks.
In her career, Johnson is 59-8 with a 1.99 ERA, 22 shutouts, four no-hitters. She has 616 career strikeouts in 391.1 innings. Next spring, she will have a chance to break the state’s all-time career strikeout record off 866 set by Riverton’s Taylor Compton.
Johnson’s dad, Jason, has accepted the superintendent job at Clearwater for next fall. Korryn, though, will stay at Holcomb with her mother for her senior year, one more opportunity to play every game with Rodriguez, an historic battery in Kansas softball history.
“Catching-wise, you have to have a different mentality to put the gear on and get behind the plate for two games in a row,” Barrett said. “Sometimes it’s freezing cold out, sometimes it’s 90 degrees out and it’s miserable either way, but she wants to be back there.”
“Like she has that drive. I mean, she has a cannon for an arm,” she added. “It’s crazy, so we have worked on her accuracy from freshman year to now, and that also has improved greatly, but when it comes to somebody wanting to catch Korryn, Korryn throws so hard that Rian’s not afraid to get back there and do it.”