Not long before the start of the 2019 season, through the football-themed fall and the bitter snappy winds of winter, epiphany struck Katy’s senior softball players.
Making it to the regional final was no longer enough. After falling in the fifth round of the playoffs each of the last three seasons, the Tigers realized they could no longer rely strictly on talent. Competing for regional titles wasn’t the goal; competing for state titles was.
That, in itself, was a revelation; Katy finally had come to understand how good it was.
“One way to measure talent is how many (NCAA) Division I players you have,” coach Kalum Haack said, referring to seniors Tori Whillock (Texas Tech), Chloe Cobb (Texas Tech), Cait Calland (LSU) and high-DI prospect Olivia McFadden, just a sophomore. “We’ve never had this many before.”
Katy learned that what separated itself from true greatness wasn’t physical ability or skill. The Tigers have that in droves. What it was, was all mental.
Success for Katy High softball manifested itself, for better or worse, in the space between the ears.
Never was that more evident than the workmanlike, exhausting practices that led up to last week’s regional final series against Deer Park.
“During the whole week of practice, one of the things Coach Haack kept preaching was not to make the game bigger than itself,” Whillock said. “We’ve been here before, four years in a row. For us seniors, it was a matter of being disciplined, but also, really, being aggressive. We attacked the moment.”
The result? A complete whitewashing of the Deer in the regional finals, when Katy outscored Deer Park 23-4 in an overwhelming sweep that earned it a spot in this weekend’s Class 6A state tournament at the University of Texas’ McCombs Field in Austin.
To get there, the Tigers (35-2) have been the committed. There’s a no-nonsense approach that hasn’t entirely been there all the time the last three years.
Led by eight seniors—particularly Whillock, Cobb, Alyssa LeBlanc and Amy Hitt, who have all been varsity starters since their freshmen years—Katy’s focus and determination have rarely waned when it mattered most.
“Without them talking about it much,” Haack said, “there’s more of a sense of urgency.”
It started early. Players started putting more time into their work. For some, like Whillock, it meant more time in the batting cage. For others, like LeBlanc, it meant better dedication to conditioning and getting themselves in better shape.
Then there are players like McFadden, who spends hours on her own after practices hitting balls, desperate to perfect technique.
“The past three years when we lost, we were really focused on other teams,” Calland said. “This season, and especially the playoffs, it’s been about focusing on us. Let’s be the best team we can be and everything else will take care of itself.
“We’ve made a vow to outwork any team, and that’s what we’re going to lean on to get over the hump and hopefully win a state title.”
The Tigers are a team obsessed by the details. The little things that make up the big things.
Yes, the 50 home runs and 1.63 team earned-run average are gaudy, outstanding numbers. But perhaps more important are the .954 fielding percentage, .956 base-stealing percentage (89 of 93), and .417 batting average with runners in scoring position.
“What (the last three years) does is place that much more importance on each cut, each groundball, each pitch,” Cobb said. “Just give everything you have.”
In a word, the Tigers have matured. This is the result. Dominance. They experienced, they learned, they acclimated.
There’s a saying that goes, “it’s not a loss if you learn from it.” The last three years, falling in the regional finals, so close to state, were heartbreaking. But the Tigers learned. They adjusted. They adapted.
“The only difference for this team this year is knowing how much work you have to put in,” Calland said. “That plays a big role, as far as us knowing what we have to do to obtain our goal. That’s huge for us.”
So, after the cheers had quieted and enough high-fives and hugs had been given to make hands and bodies sore, the Tigers abruptly turned their attention forward after their Game 2 regional final win over Deer Park on May 23 that secured their ticket to state.
The celebration was relatively short-lived. Because if these Tigers have learned anything, it’s that their work was far from done.
“Even after we got through celebrating, our focus immediately went to, OK, we have two games to go,” Whillock said. “We’re not done. This isn’t our season. We’ve worked so hard to get here. Now I can’t wait to see what we can do.”