No rest for speedy Kai Minor on her path to softball success

 Orange Lutheran center fielder Kai Minor talks to a teammate in the dugout.
Orange Lutheran center fielder Kai Minor is a 15-year-old freshman hitting leadoff for one of the Southland’s top high school softball teams.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

The young center fielder stepped out of the batter’s box, grabbing at her shoulder, trying to windmill her arm in tiny circles.

Normally, Orange Lutheran High’s Kai Minor is unflappable on the softball diamond. Yet in this Tuesday afternoon at-bat against Santa Margarita, her stone-faced expression cracked into a grimace. Her shoulder had been nagging her through the weekend. Quickly, she made an assessment: She wouldn’t be able to fully swing through the pain.

Even when arms fail, with Minor’s fast feet, everything usually works out OK.

On a 3-2 count, she started churning before the ball crossed home, slapping a grounder to the left side. The Santa Margarita shortstop couldn’t have played it any better, gloving the ball and firing it to first. But it was too late. Minor, burning a hole up the line, had already smacked the base.

“She is so darn quick,” coach Steve Miklos said.

That’s a big reason why Miklos has hit Minor leadoff since her first game at Orange Lutheran — she’s a near-lock to get on base. As just a freshman, Minor has led Orange Lutheran (19-8) to a Trinity League title behind a ridiculous .548 batting average, and is already drawing the attention of college recruiters.


Kai Minor attempts a bunt during Orange Lutheran's game against Santa Margarita on Tuesday.
Kai Minor attempts a bunt during Orange Lutheran’s 12-1 victory over Santa Margarita on Tuesday.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

When Minor’s swing is off, she can slap a pitch or bunt it. When opponents expect the slap or bunt, she can take a full swing. And, at 15 years old, no moment is too big. The next phase is the Southern Section playoffs, when the Lancers play Thursday at Riverside Poly.

“It’s like, how do you defend her?” Miklos said, grinning. “She’s got short game … she can do it all.”

By the time she hit third grade, Minor knew she could fly.

In elementary school, she started challenging other kids to races during recess. On a team when she was younger, her friend got her desired uniform number. Minor suggested they race for it.

Her friend’s mother wasn’t too keen on that idea.

“She was like, ‘I know your daughter is faster,’” Minor’s mother Tamica said. “‘Why would I do that?’”

Minor can run a 40-yard dash in 4.8 seconds and can get down the first-base line in 2.6. Time after time, routine infield grounders have magically turned into singles at the flick of her wrists. She’s seen opposing infielders get frustrated, she said.

“It’s pretty funny,” Minor said.

As she’s grown along a softball journey that’s seen stops with Team USA, Minor has grappled with her mental game. Small situations, individual at-bats, are molehills made into mountains. So it can be a comfort to know, if all else fails, that her speed can get Minor on base in a variety of ways.

Orange Lutheran center fielder Kai Minor tracks down a ball during a game against Santa Margarita.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Yet that overshadows one strong truth: Minor, as her mother said with a chuckle, likes to rake.


“I feel like [teams] just think, ‘Oh, [she’s] going to slap because she’s fast,’” Minor said. “No. I’m going to hit.”

Hit she has. Minor ranks second only to senior Kiki Estrada on the team in home runs, with six. In her first at-bat in the team’s winter season, Estrada said, Minor bombed a home run to left-center field.

“That thing flew,” a wide-eyed Estrada said. “I was like, ‘Oh my goodness gracious.’”

Quickly, Estrada realized the newcomer batting in front of her was no ordinary freshman.

“I was like, ‘Oh, freshman’s leading off, she might be scared,’” Estrada said. “But no, she came in, hit a home run her first at-bat. I’m like, ‘Ope, she’s good to go.’”

Teammates and family have different names for it. Estrada went simplistic — a poker face. Mike Brown, a longtime family friend and Minor’s first hitting coach, calls it the “Kai face.” Minor and her family dub it the “resting pitch face.”

Regardless of the terminology, the sentiment is the same. When Minor steps onto a softball diamond, her face reveals the truth: She isn’t there to play around.


“She wants to be great,” Brown said. “And she has no time for foolishness.”

Kai Minor, center, talks to teammate Kiki Estrada before the start of a game against Santa Margarita.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Brown, a self-described goofball, spent months trying to crack Minor when she was younger. She’d just roll her eyes at him.

Eventually, that became their running joke. To others, Minor has often been misunderstood. At times, youth coaches have thought she simply wasn’t having fun, father Marshall said.

Minor and her family want to set the record straight: She is, in fact, fun. She’s a hoot with teammates. She’s buying shortstop Mya Diaz a shirt that says “Eat My Dust” that Diaz has no choice but to wear — the result of a wager on yet another race. But Minor also cares — a lot — about softball.

“People think I’m always serious,” Minor said, “but it’s just me getting into my game.”

That attitude, Tamica said, is born from years of playing up to older competition. Minor has always carried herself differently, Brown said.


So when Miklos tasked her with hitting leadoff, Minor was not fazed.

“She’s the complete package as a freshman,” Miklos said. “And she doesn’t play like a freshman.”

That focus can cut through the pressure — particularly as Minor has grappled not only with being younger than her competition, but also often as one of the only Black players on her youth teams in a white-dominated sport, her mother said.

“What I always tell her is, ‘It’s OK to be a role model,’” Tamica said.

The speed, that cloud of dust left along the first-base line in her wake, will only draw further attention. So as Minor marches toward bigger dreams — a CIF title for Orange Lutheran, a college commitment, perhaps even a spot on the Olympic softball team — the “Kai face” can only come in handy.

“I hope she continues to show people the rock star,” Brown said, “that I’ve always known she was going to be.”

Kai Minor is all smiles in the Orange Lutheran dugout during a game against Santa Margarita.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)