MOUNT ZION — Go back in time to find a younger Dayna Kennedy, the version before she turned in to the driving force in Mount Zion's offense.
Find the version before she was the program's all-time home run leader or before she hit 13 home runs as a senior. That Kennedy wasn't a fan of pressure-packed moments, where the team depended on each passing swing of her bat.
As Kennedy — who just wrapped up her senior season at Mount Zion — got older, she came to cherish those moments. Two outs, runners in scoring position and a full count? Sign Dayna Kennedy up for that. Then expect her to deliver.
She hit .444 this season with 13 home runs, 28 extra base hits, 22 two-out RBI and a .567 on-base percentage as the lead-off hitter for the Braves, who finished third in Class 3A. With that, Kennedy won her second consecutive Herald & Review Macon County Softball Player of the Year award.
She stood firmly in the spotlight and came through exactly when Mount Zion needed her to make a play. She didn't want to disappoint.
“Going up there and having pressure on you shows what kind of an athlete you really think you can be," said Kennedy, who is signed to play softball at Illinois State University.
She hit .462 with runners in scoring position, taking advantage of extra at-bats from the lead-off spot. It was unconventional to bat such a powerful force — tied for third all-time in IHSA history with 54 career homers — at lead-off, but Mount Zion coach Greg Blakey knew that she could do damage from that spot and get an extra at bat later in the game. He figured one swing could give the Braves an early 1-0 lead, or she would get on base ahead of a stacked lineup. She delivered with five lead-off homers for Mount Zion this season.
Nothing epitomized Kennedy like the Class 3A third-place game. The Braves were coming off of a heartbreaking loss in the semifinal game less than 24 hours earlier and had a good Kankakee Bishop MacNamara team in front of them. Kennedy turned in a stellar defensive game complete with pickoffs at second and third base, throwing out a runner trying to steal second and and a heads-up play after an error at first base to force an out.
That was just defense, where she excelled all season and helped provide a stabilizing presence.
She also hit two home runs, including a big insurance shot in the top of the seventh inning that ended up moving her out of a tie for fourth all time and into a tie for third in the IHSA record books. It was the final high school swing of her career.
“Big players perform great when the big lights are on," Blakey said. "She did that. She never shied away, she never felt constrained by the pressure, if you will. She just went out and performed."
“That was my last ever high school game," Kennedy said. "I feel like that was honestly one of the best games I’ve ever played. Being able to go out on a home run, that really means a lot to me."
Illinois State head softball coach Melinda Fischer and her coaching staff have kept an eye on Kennedy for years. They've seen her offensive skills progress, consistency, and, of course, ability to park the ball over the fence. But they've also seen the clutch gene — Kennedy's ability to deliver in the big moments.
“To me, what stands out about Dayna is her tremendous leadership and knowledge about the game," Fischer said. "Her ability to step up in critical moments and do whatever her team needs her to do is huge. She is a versatile player that could play just about any position on the field, and when you get a kid like that, it’s just a bonus for what you want to do with your program because she can help in a lot of different ways."
The truth was, though, there were times at the beginning of the season where Kennedy was pressing at the plate. She was swinging at pitches high in the zone and trying to pull every pitch for power. Some pressure was starting to hit her. Teams knew who she was. She's been committed to Illinois State since her sophomore season, was the reigning H&R Player of the Year and was coming off of a 17 home run season.
“At the beginning of the season I wasn’t playing the best I know I could," she said. "I let too much of the pressure go to my head and trying to be better than what I was last year.
“I think I was too worried about the home runs and just stats. I threw that away and got back to the fundamentals and making myself better every game."
As the year wore on, she stopped offering at high pitches and started driving low pitches. By the state tournament, outfielders were so close to the fence they could have reached their arm backwards to grab the chain links.
“Every time she comes up to bat, everyone thinks she’s going to hit a home run," Blakey said. "It’s kind of an unrealistic expectation. Because she is so good and she’s always produced in those big moments, people kind of expect that from her.
"She’s not going to get a cheap swing, for the most part. She is going to hit something hard because she is that focused and that locked in in her at bat. I had total confidence she is going to make something happen."