Lady Vikings ready to battle for national title

Jason Della Rosa
Herald Democrat
The Grayson College Lady Vikings celebrate after earning the program's first berth in the National Junior College Athletic Association World Series. Grayson starts Series play this afternoon.

It was the bulletin board material the Lady Vikings probably didn’t need. But it sure didn’t hurt for Grayson to see what the competition thought of it.

“The conference put out the preseason poll and they picked us fifth. I was the only one to pick us first and I’ve never picked one of my teams to finish first before,” Lady Vikings head coach Mike McBrayer said. “We didn’t play in the fall so there wasn’t a lot of information but we had intersquad games and I saw our hitters against our pitchers and at times it wasn’t a fair fight and I knew my pitchers were pretty good.”

‘Pretty good’ turned out to be an understated way to describe the Lady Vikings. Especially as they are putting the finishing touches on an historic season as fourth-seeded Grayson College (44-5) opens the National Junior College Athletic Association World Series at Pacific Avenue Athletic Complex in Yuma, Ariz against 11th-seed John A. Logan College (44-11) at 4 p.m. on Tuesday.

It is the first time in program history the Lady Vikings are in the national tournament.

“It’s always the goal. To be able to reach this point is amazing,” pitcher Dylann Kaderka said. “I remember telling the pitching coach, Ashley Mills, at our first practice ‘I truly believe we can go far.’”

The winner will face the winner between No. 5 Wallace State (53-4) and No. 12 Chipola (25-17) at 4 p.m. on Wednesday while the losers in each match-up will square off in an elimination game at noon on Wednesday.

The semifinals are on Friday with the championship game at 2 p.m. on Saturday.

Grayson’s seed in the 16-team, double-elimination bracket reflects the final regular-season national rankings. Salt Lake Community College is the top overall seed, followed by Butler Community College and Florida Southwestern State.

In addition to those three, McBrayer added Seminole State (Okla.), which is seeded sixth, as another top contender the Lady Vikings would potentially have to deal with later in the tournament.

After going nearly two months without a loss at the start of the season, Grayson now carries a long winning streak into the Series.

“If you’re going to win 17 in a row, you want it to be at the end when it means the most,” McBrayer said. “We had to take care of business and they did that.”

Kaderka was the conference’s Pitcher of the Year after compiling a 27-2 record with a 2.30 earned run average and 182 strikeouts in 164.2 innings.

But her season almost ended prematurely when she was hit in the temple by a line drive against McLennan in the middle of March.

“It was just a really bad concussion. I obviously wasn’t okay at the time,” Kaderka said. “I was really excited to get back out there as soon as I could.”

She missed only five games — but three of them were losses, including the first of the year by the Lady Vikings that snapped their 23-game winning streak and an 11-0 start to conference play.

It didn’t help that a week later, Lilli Cook, who is 7-1, went down with an injury — pushing Zoe Lott into the circle full-time.

She responded with eight wins in the second half of the season (10-1 overall) and a 2.64 ERA.

“Dylann got hurt and Lilli got hurt. That was our speed bump. It could have been a lot worse,” McBrayer said. “The good thing out of it was Zoe Lott. She went from our No. 3 to our No. 2 and was a first-team all-conference pitcher when we also had the Pitcher of the Year.”

The bats have also been very productive as five Lady Vikings have double-digit home runs.

Hailey Vess leads with 21 long balls to go with 59 RBI and a .420 average, JT Smith — who was the conference Player of the Year — has 18 homers and 62 RBI and leads with a .482 average, Sage Harlow, a Whitewright native, is batting .401 with 17 homers and a team-best 72 RBI and Cheyenne Stark and Dominique Rodriguez each have 12 home runs and driven in 46 and 50 runs, respectively.

It took just a couple of weeks into the schedule for the Lady Vikings to see their potential.

“I realized it at the THF Winter Blast (in early February),” McBrayer said. “We beat No. 4 Tyler pretty good and then beat a great Trinity Valley team that’s also in the World Series. We went from unranked to No. 9 in the rankings and that was a pretty big deal.”

Since then Grayson has been near the top of the polls. The 23-game winning streak put them there. The current 17-game winning streak has put them in a place they have never been, but also shows they belong on the sport’s biggest stage.

“Just play like we have been. We’ve been playing our game and it’s been working so why change what we’re doing,” Kaderka said.

John A. Logan College, which is located in Carterville, Illinois, won the Region XXIV Tournament to reach the World Series. The Lady Vols finished tied for second in the Great Rivers Athletic Conference at 26-6 and entered the region tourney as the third seed but went 5-0, including consecutive wins over top seed Lake Land College after a win in the semifinals against second-seeded Wabash Valley College.

Kelsey Ray was the MVP of the region tournament and is 24-2 with a 1.99 ERA and 129 strikeouts in 158.2 innings.

Center fielder Aryn Henke leads John A. Logan with a .441 average to go with 12 home runs and 60 RBI. Left fielder Hayley Palm is batting .363 with a team-best 26 homers and 64 RBI while right fielder Taylor Witges is hitting .390 and first baseman Kate Crombar sports a .382 average with 18 homers and 60 RBI.

NJCAA World Series

First Round

What: Grayson College vs. John A. Logan College

Where: Yuma, Ariz.

When: 4 p.m. today