Sydney McKeown has been the leadoff batter for the Corona del Mar High softball team for three years, and that's not by accident.
The lefty is known as a "slapper," something that's common in softball. The name for it is easy to understand. McKeown slaps at the ball and sprints to first, trying to get on base any way she can and maybe even steal a base.
"It's really an advantage to the lefties, since we're already on the other side of the plate, closer to first," McKeown said. "Once you're going in motion, that also gives you better momentum to be faster. You kind of have to be really fast to be a slapper."
McKeown used these things to her advantage, but she also put in the work. Nobody in the Pacific Coast League hit better than McKeown this year. Few girls in the country could make that claim, either.
For her breakout season, McKeown is the 2013-14 Daily Pilot Newport-Mesa Dream Team Player of the Year.
She batted .662, which was 36th in the state according to Maxpreps.com, and led CdM with 24 runs scored and 17 stolen bases. But aside from the numbers, she also showed leadership, continuing to pitch even though she no longer does so in travel-ball.
McKeown was 3-3 with a 1.90 earned-run average, which was third in the league.
CdM won just a single game last year. This year, though the Sea Kings extended to a 60-game league losing streak, they won nine overall games.
It was easy to see why second-year CdM Coach Carly Smith called McKeown "a coach's dream."
"She was extremely dependable," Smith said. "She's the one you hoped was coming up in the lineup. Even if she didn't get a hit, she was always on base. That kid was crazy this year. Absolutely amazing."
McKeown, who earned first-team All-Pacific Coast League status for a second straight year and is also a two-time Dream Team selection, said she didn't focus too much on her eye-popping numbers. To her, they were the result of hard work put in with her Firecrackers travel-ball coaches, Tony Rico and Jeff Blanco.
"It didn't really hit me how good that is until I noticed my previous season, when I hit [.368 in league]," McKeown said. "That's like double. It didn't even occur to me that I was getting on so much; I was just doing it."
What McKeown was doing was being a more-than dependable bat in a CdM lineup that dealt with a lot of issues, from Amanda Penna's torn labrum to Samantha Flores' arm injury to Kelly Owen's mononucleosis. And cleanup hitter Brooke Franson, a freshman who was the team's only other travel-ball player, was diagnosed with a fractured pelvis right before league began and missed the rest of the season.
"Right when the season started, everyone just got hurt all at once," McKeown said. "We had like 10 girls who could play."
But McKeown stuck it out, and people in the area took notice. Newport Harbor Coach Russell Hartman, who resigned after the season, is one person who's happy he doesn't have to face McKeown anymore.
"My vote for best player would be for Sydney as well," Hartman said in an email. "She always pitches us tough, but aside from that we can't figure out how to keep that girl off the bases. If I wasn't sitting in the opposite dugout I would've really enjoyed watching her play."
McKeown, who played recreational softball at Newport-Mesa Girls' Softball (then called Pacific Coast Girls' Fastpitch) until she was 10, has a busy summer of travel-ball planned. On Thursday she was en route to a tournament in Oregon, hoping to help her Firecrackers squad qualify for nationals in Huntington Beach in late July. She said there are also tournaments planned in Colorado, Chicago and San Diego.
The high school season, though, also was very satisfying to McKeown.
"I was really surprised," she said. "A lot of our girls weren't that experienced. I don't know how, but we did so much better than last season."
McKeown definitely had a lot to do with it.
Here's a look at the other nine players on this year's Dream Team:
Hinkle, a four-year varsity pitcher for the Eagles, showed her value both in and out of the circle. The team captain was 16-8 with a 2.02 earned-run average for Estancia, striking out 139 batters in 138 2/3 innings. She also hit .349 and tied for second on the team with 16 runs batted in, also placing second with five doubles. Hinkle, a first-team All-Orange Coast League and repeat Dream Team selection, helped the Eagles finish third in league to return to the CIF Southern Section Division 5 playoffs, winning a wild-card game before falling at Schurr of Montebello in the first round.
The junior outfielder was a rock for the Sailors, who went 2-23-1, 0-10 in league, although both of their wins were against district foes (CdM and Estancia). Horvath, a second-team All-Sunset League selection, batted .204, and her 11 hits tied for the team lead. She also led Newport Harbor with three doubles. Hartman said that Horvath was the closest thing his team had to a sure thing on defense, recalling her robbing a home run from over the fence against Los Alamitos as a highlight.
Herrera was a very valuable piece for the Mustangs as a first baseman and catcher. She hit .367 for Costa Mesa (3-17, 2-8 in league). Her nine RBIs were third on the team, and she was third with 13 runs scored and second with four doubles. A first-team All-Orange Coast League selection, Herrera was just a sophomore this year, so look for her to be a leader in the future for Mesa.
Corona del Mar
A senior, Johnston split time between catcher and shortstop this season. She stepped up, playing the former position early in the season until freshman Lauren Oberreiter took over. Johnston showed leadership on and off the field and usually hit in the heart of the order for CdM. She hit .255, and was third on the team with 13 RBIs.
Rios, a sophomore shortstop, came up clutch in big games for the Eagles. She helped Estancia win twice against Costa Mesa in league, and was three for four with a double and two runs scored in the Eagles' 3-2 home win over Calabasas Viewpoint in a CIF wild-card game. For the season, she was second on Estancia with a .406 batting average, and led the team with 19 RBIs and 10 doubles. Rios, a first-team All-Orange Coast League selection, struck out just twice all season and never in league.
In her first year on varsity and just her second playing softball, Barrios came a long way. The sophomore was the Sailors' catcher all season long. Hartman highlighted her play in the Huntington Beach game, when she threw out two runners trying to steal in the same inning. And against Marina, she hit a line-drive single against Michigan-bound senior Tera Blanco. A second-team All-Sunset League selection, Barrios batted .179.
A senior catcher, Vernon is a three-time Dream Team selection for both her offense and defense. Coach Carrie Lester said Vernon was able to pick off many runners with her strong arm. With the bat, the second-team All-Orange Coast League selection hit .262 with nine RBIs. Also a part of the Eagles' league championship girls' basketball team, Vernon plans to continue her softball career at Orange Coast College.
The freshman was a clutch hitter for the Sailors. She hit a big two-RBI double in the Battle of the Bay game against CdM, which Harbor won, 8-5, and her confidence continued to grow. And Hartman said she also got better and better as the team's starting third baseman all season. For the year, Blanchfield batted .178 and her six RBIs tied her for the team lead.
Maya Van Den Heever
The sophomore center fielder made some big plays in the outfield and was formidable with her strong arm. But she also shined on offense, leading Estancia with a .425 average. Her five triples led the team, and she tied for second with 16 RBIs. Van Den Heever makes the Dream Team in her second sport, as she is a two-time selection in girls' basketball.