It’s Bret Harte vs. Sonora, the spring of 2011. Bullfrog ace hurler Kendra Bennett is in the circle. Stepping into the batter’s box is the forever-dangerous Kelli Keefe. It’s the ultimate matchup and —
CLOSE FRIENDS Kendra Bennett (left) and Kelli Keefe (right) are Co-Most Valuable Players on the 2011 Union Democrat All-Area Softball Team. Bennett and Keefe became friends playing softball on Redskin head coach Dominic Vasile's traveling summer softball team. AMY ALONZO-ROZAK/UNION DEMOCRAT
Hold it, you say. What’s going on here? Sonora and Bret Harte never faced off this past spring in softball.
OK, let’s just pretend.
Back to business. It’s Bennett vs. Keefe. Sure, they’re close buddies away from the ballpark. But on the diamond, each is renown for possessing a fiery, never-give-an-inch competitive streak.
There’s Bennett, the area’s top pitcher with her scorching fastball and nasty changeup.
And then there’s Keefe — the area’s top hitter with her picturesque swing and jet-engine wheels.
Bennett vs. Keefe.
So, what happens?
“Well,” says Keefe, with a hearty chuckle, “if Kendra and I actually would have faced each other this past season, I think Kendra would have walked me. She wouldn’t want to strike me out because we’re such close friends. But she wouldn’t want me to get a base hit either.”
“Well,” says Bennett, with a huge guffaw, “to be honest, Kelli and I would look at each other and then both start laughing. She’d be smiling and then I would just start laughing. She’d try to get a hit off me and I’d bet that she would because she’s so good. Now if she did get a hit off me, I wouldn’t care. And if I struck her out, she wouldn’t care. And no matter what happened, it wouldn’t ever affect our friendship.”
In the summer of 2010, Bennett and Keefe got to know each other well playing on Dominic Vasile’s traveling All-Star softball team.
“Kendra is one of my favorite people ever,” says Keefe. “She’s got such a great personality.”
“Kelli is such a fantastic person,” says Bennett. “We became really great friends.”
In the spring of 2011, the senior Bennett led the Mother Lode League in strikeouts — averaging more than one an inning — and wins with 11. At the plate, she led the MLL in slugging percentage (.838) and RBIs (30) and finished second in hitting with a .500 batting average.
Keefe, also a senior, batted .506 and had an on-base percentage of .556, placing her fifth in the Valley Oak League in both categories. She stole a league-leading 33 bases which placed her seventh in the entire Sac-Joaquin section.
You could ask Keefe how it felt to get thrown out stealing a base in 2011, but she wouldn’t be able to answer.
It never happened.
33 attempts, 33 swipes. Remarkable.
Bennett hurled her way into Bullfrog softball lore with three unforgettable performances within a seven-day span.
She struck out 17 batters combined in must-have league wins over Summerville and Calaveras. Then, for an encore, in the first round of the Sac-Joaquin Section Division V Championships, Bennett struck out 11 batters and yielded just two hits in a masterpiece, a shutout win over Mesa Verde.
And so Bennett and Keefe are The Union Democrat 2011 All-Area Co-Most Valuable Players.
“This award couldn’t happen to two better kids,” said Vasile, head coach of Calaveras. “Kendra took a young Bret Harte team and led them to the playoffs. And Kelli, playing in the tough Valley Oak League, was a great leader for Sonora. They are both natural leaders and they are excellent choices for the award.”
“Well, I think it’s a great pick,” said Summerville head coach Ben Watson. “The biggest strength Kendra and Kelli each have is that they’re both so competitive. It’s not just that they’re both so talented. There are a lot of girls with talent. But, as a coach, the big question I like to ask is: How competitive are the girls?
“And with these two, I really admire their competitiveness. When there was a game to play, these two athletes showed up to play.”
“I think both of them are so deserving of this award,” said Bret Harte head coach Heath Lane. “It’s the perfect pick for MVP honors.”
“These are two great choices,” said Sonora head coach Dena Canaday. “Kelli and Kendra both deserve this.”
“Kendra is a great player,” said Keefe. “She works so hard. She’s always doing whatever she needs to improve. I’m happy we’re MVPs together because I love her.”
“This is such a great honor to me,” said Bennett. “It makes me really happy to get the award and I’m especially happy that I get to share it with Kelli.”
“How key was Kendra to our success this season? Kendra was the key,” said Lane.
The Bullfrogs had been a combined 12-33 in league play the prior three years. Three straight 4-11 seasons.
The 2011 team had one senior, Bennett. But Bennett didn’t want to merely read about the playoffs in the newspaper. She wanted to participate.
“And so I just worked my butt off,” explained Bennett. “And my teammates seemed to do the same. I’m really glad that I worked so hard because I never knew that I could get so far just by working so hard.”
“Kendra showed amazing leadership on and off the field for us,” said Lane. “And halfway through this season, she just got command of everything on the mound. She could always throw fast. But she got complete control of that pitch. And then on offense, there were very few games where she didn’t have at least two or three hits.”
“Not only was she a quality pitcher,” said Watson of Bennett, “I really liked the way she focused defensively. And she came to that plate with a purpose. She always seemed determined to have a good at-bat. She swung it so well.”
“Kendra had a terrific year at the plate,” said Vasile, whose team won the MLL in 2010 and 2009. “And then she beat us twice with her pitching. If you beat us twice, you’ve had a great season.
“And with Kelli? Well, I just love the way she plays softball.”
Keefe was a human vacuum at shortstop.
“I just charged everything and was never afraid to get dirty,” explained Keefe. “Every game my dad (Clark) would be in the stands yelling, ‘You’ve got to lay out for a ball in the hole!’ So I’d tell myself, ‘I better lay out for a ball in the hole.’ I liked that our jerseys are white and mine was always dirty.”
“She was clearly the leader of her teams’ infield,” said Watson of Keefe. “Her teammates looked to her. She’d pick them up verbally and then she’d pick them up with her play. Her teammates saw her hustling so much, so they hustled, too.”
The Wildcats took first place in the preseason NorCal Tracy Tournament.
“What was so amazing about that tournament is that Kelli led us in every way you can lead a team even though she had an injury (leg),” said Canaday. “She played hurt, and she still played fantastic.
“All season, she drove other teams crazy with the way she’d steal bases. Sometimes, she’d just steal a base when the catcher was throwing the ball back to the pitcher. She’d take off.”
In the title contest of the Tracy Tournament, Keefe scored a pivotal run by tagging up from third base — off a pop up to the second baseman.
“Yeah,” said Keefe, with a smile. “That play was cool. It was fun.”
Keefe’s teammate, junior Jenna Kirk, also made the All-Area First-Team. Kirk batted .479 and had a team-high 22 RBIs.
Three of Bennett’s teammates made First-Team: sophomores Cassidy Davis, Taylor O’Connor and Bekka Gross. Davis batted .392, O’Connor batted .356 and belted a league-high five homers. Gross hit .358 and was sensational behind the plate.
Summerville defeated every MLL foe at least once and was in playoff contention until the final two days of the season. The Bears were led by seniors Sam Darrin and Nicole Robinson and sophomore Taylor Ebner, each of whom earned All-Area First-Team honors.
Both excellent with their gloves, shortstop Robinson batted .465 and third baseman Darrin hit .396. Ebner batted .339 and was outstanding in the circle.
Calaveras played a brutal non-league schedule and still ended up with the area’s best-won loss record, 15-12. Three Redskins earned All-Area First-Team honors: juniors Nina Toia and Sabrina Williams and sophomore Courtney Tarbat. Toia hit .333, Williams .340, and Tarbat a team-high .411.
So, next season, eight of the 12 First-Team All-Area 2010 honorees will return to the diamonds in Angels Camp, Sonora, Tuolumne and San Andreas.
Bennett will play for San Joaquin Delta College and Keefe will suit up for Chico State.
“This MVP award was well deserved by both Kelli and Kendra,” said Summerville assistant coach Ray Emerald. “Kelli can beat you so many ways: defense, hitting, her speed. And Kendra really stepped it up this year, showing total command of her pitches.
“And there’s something I can say with certainty: Chico State is getting a great softball player and Delta is getting a great softball player, too.”