The success seen by the Leonard girls athletic program over the last four years came together on Monday to show off the fruits of their labor.
For every practice and ounce of sweat, for every banner and sign hanging, for every school and state record set, the core of that production will look to continue through the end of their senior years and then carry it over to the next level.
Those participating in one of the largest signing classes for Leonard athletes were twin sisters Kelcie and Natalie Simmons, who are headed to Duke for track, the softball trio of Claudia Ware (Campbell), Taylor Stricklin (Texas Southern) and Dani Koch (Murray State College) and Bridget Watson, who announced her intentions to play basketball for Austin College.
“It's crazy that we happen to be in the same class,” Watson said. “It's always been about the program. Even though we have individual success we are doing it for each other.”
There was no doubt in the minds of Kelcie and Natalie Simmons that they would go to the same college. They chose Duke over offers from several major programs, including Kansas State, Mississippi State, Texas and Wisconsin.
“We made a list of our top five without the other knowing and we both had Duke as our No. 1,” Natalie said. “We had been planning to go to the same school since the recruiting proccess started. We wanted to go somewhere we could make a difference and continue to improve.”
Added Kelcie: “The coaches in general, we had a really good connection. What Duke in itself represented. They say when you know, you know.”
From a team standpoint, they helped Leonard win the Class 3A team state championship as freshmen and the Tigerettes were state runners-up this past spring with a fifth-place finish in between.
On an individual basis, they have combined for 18 gold and silver medals.
This past spring, Kelcie was a part of the state-winning and Class 3A record 1,600 relay in 3:51.05, which broke the record of 3:52.44 set by Longview Spring Hill in 1978, and the winning 800 relay in 3A record time of 1:39.06, smashing Rosebud-Lott's mark from 2014 by a second.
She also was the state runner-up in the 100 meters in 11.53 seconds.
As a sophomore, she was the state runner-up in the long jump and part of the state winning 800 relay.
During the state title run in 2015, she was on all three gold medal winning relays.
“We sorta figured we could be really good at it and when we won freshman year, it's been all up from there,” Kelcie said. “Putting it all together, it's a step-by-step process.”
A knee injury hampered Natalie's sophomore season but her career has still been full of success.
She joined her sister on the two record-setting relays and also won the triple jump with a leap of 38 feet, two and three quarter inches to win by nearly a foot and was the state runner-up in the long jump at 19 feet, three and a quarter inch.
In 2016 she returned just in time for state and was part of the state winning 800 relay.
During her freshman year she was on all three gold medal winning relays and was the state champion in the long jump and the runner-up in the triple jump.
“Honestly never imagined all this,” Natalie said. “We didn't really know we were capable of that many until we did it.”
Duke's track program overall has produced 15 first-team All-Americans, 44 NCAA Championships qualifiers and seven ACC titles over the last three indoor and outdoor seasons.
The three softball players helped the program end a 17-year playoff drought this past spring and the team was third in 10-3A and finished with a 21-7 record after the bi-district series went the distance before losing against Pottsboro.
“We're really excited for the season,” Koch said. “We think we're really going to do well.”
Last season Ware, an outfielder, hit .512 with a .592 on-base percentage, nine doubles, five triples, nine home runs and 40 RBI with 44 runs, 15 walks and 20 steals and was first-team all-district.
As a sophomore she hit .571 and drove in 24 runs.
Ware chose Campbell over Tulsa. The Division I program in North Carolina went 29-29 last season, was second in the Big South Conference and competed in the National Invitational Softball Championship. The Camels were the Big South Tournament runner-up in 2016.
“It's a small-town feel just like Leonard. When we drove up on it, that was where I wanted to be,” Ware said. “Hopefully I can go right in and play.”
Last season Stricklin hit .442 with a .534 on-base percentage, 13 doubles, two triples, five home runs and 31 RBI She was 12-6 with a 2.99 earned run average with 99 strikeouts and 66 walks in the circle and named first-team all-district.
Stricklin chose Texas Southern, a Division I program that went 25-21 this past season and made the NCAA Tournament for the third time in four seasons. The Lady Tigers have won the SWAC's Western Division title the past five years.
“I set a goal to play Division I. That was a big factor for me,” Stricklin said. “They said I'll pitch some but they see me as a utility — they could put me anywhere.”
Last season Koch hit .456 with a .494 on-base percentage, eight doubles, three triples and drove in 24 runs. She was named second team all-district.
Koch chose Murray State over Hendrix. The junior college program in Tishomingo, Okla. went 32-20 last season.
“I liked Murray because it was small and close to home,” said Koch, who will play either first or third for the team.
Watson chose Austin College over UT-Tyler and Southwestern.
“Everybody talked about the academics,” she said. “I wanted to go somewhere and have the chance to play and get a really good education as a business major.”
Watson has been on varsity all four years and been a main contributor the last two seasons. She averaged 14 points, 2.8 rebounds, two assists and 2.3 steals as a junior and was the District 10-3A Offensive Player of the Year. As a sophomore she averaged 13.6 points, 2.9 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 2.1 steals and was a first-team all-district pick in 13-3A.
Austin College enters this season off a 19-8 campaign that saw them finish third in the SCAC standings and reach the semifinals of the conference tournament.