Carroll sweeps Northwest to win sixth straight City League softball title
Just behind home plate, Carroll pitcher Kaylin Watkins saw red.
She wasn't mad, at least not at first and not soon after. Playing against Northwest for the City League softball championship, Watkins saw a line of Maize softball players on the Grizzlies' side of the stands.
They cheered against her.
Carroll won its sixth straight City League title after sweeping Northwest on Monday, and few outside of the Golden Eagles' program were thrilled with that. Carroll has sprouted a target on its back, one the players have learned to deal with.
"When I'm pitching, I just focus on the glove," Watkins said. "It's just me and the glove at the moment. A lot of the time, the coaches yell, 'Kaylin, Kaylin,' and I just can't hear anything."
Carroll has lost two regular-season games in the past five years. The Eagles have won 13 state championships in the 41 years softball has been sponsored by the Kansas State High School Activities Association — more than 30 percent.
Through that success, Carroll has picked up more enemies than fans.
When asked whether the Maize/Carroll rivalry was friendly, Watkins raised her eyebrows.
Last year, Maize finished 18-3. Two of its losses were to Carroll. Maize was swept the year before, the year before that and the two years before that.
Maize hasn't beaten Carroll since the 2012 season opener, and Maize is one of the best softball teams in Kansas.
They meet again for a doubleheader starting at 5 p.m. Tuesday at Two Rivers Youth Club. But this time, Maize could be the favorite.
The Eagles are 15-0 this season and had the AVCTL I title wrapped up before the final week of the season even started.
Carroll coach Steve Harshberger said this year has been different. Almost every player is out of position and there are no nationally acclaimed stars on the roster.
Watkins, a junior, is Carroll's most well-known player and has verbally committed to UMKC. She is hitting .600 and has a 0.66 ERA. She has hit 15 home runs this season, three shy of the Kansas high school record.
She is a good player, but Carroll has recently sent players to the likes of Ole Miss and Oklahoma State.
"If we have a star, she's the one who is carrying the biggest bag," Harshberger said. "We've got four pitchers here. Two of them could go pitch for anybody else in the city, but they probably aren't going to get a lot of innings until they get older."
In 2015, Carroll went 25-0 and won the 5A state championship, the Wichita area's most recent. The Golden Eagles were acclaimed as one of, if not the, greatest team in the country.
After that season, junior Ally Vonfeldt said there were times it felt as if a win was guaranteed just because of the brand. But that isn't the case anymore.
"They set a name for us," Vonfeldt said. "So we have to step up our game to where they were."
The Golden Eagles are mostly competing against versions of their former selves. The City League offers some top-end talent but not every night. Watkins said they try to approach every game as if they are playing Maize.
"It doesn't matter if the pitcher is throwing rainbows or darts," she said.
Carroll is young. With only one senior starter, the Golden Eagles don't seem to be falling off anytime soon, but that doesn't matter anymore.
They haven't won a state playoff game since that 2015 championship game. In 2016, Andover entered the tournament with a losing record and beat Carroll 9-4. The next year, Carroll went down 1-0 after two pitches and lost 9-7 to Mill Valley.
Playing in late May is much different than early April, Harshberger said. The key will be to take the game an inning at a time, no matter who is in the stands.
If errors are made or people start rooting against them, which there will be, Vonfeldt said, they have to keep their heads up, especially in the state tournament.
"Don't let one mistake ruin the rest of the game," she said. "Just let it go. Leave it be. And move on to the next one."