PICKERINGTON — Mount Vernon head coach Ryan Pentz remembers the moment like it was yesterday.

It was last July, and Pentz was holding one-on-one meetings with players in his office at Energy Fieldhouse. The purpose was simple, he said: to go over “what went right, what went wrong, and where we were trying to get to.”

The Yellow Jackets were coming off a season where they finished second in the Ohio Cardinal Conference – their first time not winning the league in five seasons – and made it to the district semifinals before falling to Olentangy Liberty on a walk-off home run.

They were graduating nine seniors, including five who would go on to play collegiately. Next year’s team was shaping up to be talented, but young, with several new starters and players in leadership positions.

And here came Kennedi Endsley.

“She came in during her meeting with me and she literally had a notebook full of questions,” Pentz recalled with a laugh.

Endsley, one of Mount Vernon’s six incoming seniors, had questions about all kinds of things: things she wanted to see changed; what would be expected of her as a senior; personal and team goals.

She closed the conversation with a promise.

“She said, ‘I’m getting us a conference championship and I’m taking us back to districts,’” Pentz recalled Friday, choking up a bit as he grinned. “‘We’re getting back to where we belong.’”

Promises made, promises delivered.

Led by Endsley and a senior class Pentz called “completely unselfish,” Mount Vernon won the OCC this spring for the fifth time in six seasons. The Jackets (21-8) also made it back to the district finals for the first time since 2021, defeating Dublin Coffman and Olentangy Orange en route to a matchup Friday with top-seeded and state-ranked Watkins Memorial.

The Warriors (26-1) defeated the Jackets, 6-1, on a 80-degree night at Pickerington Central High School.

“Honestly, I’m very happy with where we ended the season,” Endsley said afterwards, clutching Mount Vernon’s district runner-up trophy. “I know it’s a loss and that’s heartbreaking, but this is a very strong team and we’re young, so they get to come back and do it all again next year.

“This year, our goals were to be back (as) conference champions and to make it to districts. So, yeah, it’s sad we didn’t win. But to even be here is amazing.”

Knox County softball: Tournament results

— Mount Vernon, seeded seventh in the Division I Central District, fell to top-seeded Watkins Memorial, 6-1, in the district finals.

East Knox, seeded sixth in the Division III Central District, fell to top-seeded Johnstown, 1-0, in the district finals.

Danville, seeded second in the Division IV Central District, fell to fourth-seeded Newark Catholic, 13-2, in the district finals.

Centerburg, seeded third in the Division III Central District, fell to fourth-seeded North Union, 9-7, in the district semifinals.

Fredericktown, seeded 12th in the Division III Central District, fell to 10th-seeded Northmor, 4-1, in the sectional semifinals.

THE GAME: Friday was an uphill battle for the Yellow Jackets, seeded seventh in the Division I Central District.

The top-seeded Warriors – ranked second in the state in the final regular season coaches’ poll – started their ace, junior Carsyn Cassady. The 5-foot-10 hurler dominated on the circle, allowing just two hits (both in the sixth inning) and striking out 14 batters (including eight in a row at one point) over seven innings of work.

“We talked the last two days about just trying to (make) contact, knowing that she has a good rise (ball). And we talked about ‘belly button down.’ And sometimes it just doesn’t work out. …” Pentz said. “You can have the plan all you want, but sometimes that pitcher’s just that good. And Carsyn, she’s good.”

Mount Vernon managed to break through in the top of the sixth inning, when Endsley recorded the Yellow Jackets’ first base hit of the game: a bloop single to shallow left field that the senior stretched into a double with hustle and speed.

Sophomore Carly Kennedy laid down a bunt that moved Endsley to third, and junior McKenzie Krownapple did the honors, hammering a sacrifice fly to deep left field that scored the senior and put Mount Vernon on the board.

But that was all the Jackets could muster offensively against Cassady, a Pittsburgh commit who came into her junior year already holding nearly every school pitching record.

“She does not give in. She’s gonna stick to her plan of attack,” Pentz said of Cassady. “And she throws well up in the zone. You know, a couple of our speed players had some really good at-bats because they’re not looking for that power shot. Power hitters really struggle with a pitcher that can go up like that in the zone, and we saw a little bit of that today. It looks good, and we think we can catch up with it, we just can’t.

“She had a great plan of attack, and unfortunately, she didn’t have too many hiccups in the circle today. And we were hoping for some hiccups.”

Mount Vernon sent three different pitchers to the circle on Friday, but none could shut down the Warriors, who have been to the state semifinals two straight seasons. Watkins Memorial tallied nine hits, drew four walks and struck out once against the Yellow Jackets.

The Warriors got on the board in the bottom of the first inning, when a double to left field, an errant throw back to second and a misplayed backup snag in center field allowed Taylor Gerhardt and Jordyn Wycuff to score on an inside-the-park home run.

Watkins Memorial tacked on two more runs in the bottom of the second. Ava McKee bunted to score leadoff batter Allison Langwasser from third after she tripled to begin the inning, making it 3-0. Gerhardt then singled to right field, scoring pinch-runner Carliee Taggart from third and extending the lead to four runs.

Kyliee Trouton stole two bases and reached home on a bunt from Gerhardt in the bottom of the fourth, making it 5-0 Warriors. And McKayla Jellison rounded out the scoring in the bottom of the fifth, sending a line-drive, solo home run to left field that brought the black-and-gold crowd to its feet.

The Yellow Jackets held their own against a Watkins Memorial team that has scored in the double-digits 15 times this season. But there was little room for error, Pentz said, and even a handful of defensive mistakes proved costly down the stretch.

“We had a couple mistakes defensively. We’re a young team in a big moment against a really, really good team,” Pentz said. “I came in knowing that we would have to play completely clean defense to beat them. We had a few mistakes, but those (were) young players making those mistakes, and they’ll learn from it and we’ll get better because of it.”

MOVING FORWARD: Watkins Memorial will face Hilliard Bradley in the regional semifinals Wednesday night.

The Warriors are looking to advance to the regional finals – and then the state semifinals – for the third straight season. They lost to Holland Springfield, 4-2, in the state semifinals last year; the year before, they fell to Massillon Perry, 1-0, in the state championship game.

Mount Vernon, meanwhile, will turn in uniforms and begin to reflect on the season that was. The Jackets won 21 games this year – three more than the season prior – and they made it back to the district title game after a one-year hiatus.

Pentz gave all the credit to his six seniors. Only one or two started regularly (Endsley, the team’s captain, was a regular fixture at second base), which meant the rest served as backups to underclassmen.

But they didn’t mind one bit, Pentz said. They took it as an opportunity, rather than a burden. And their leadership – not only mentoring the team’s younger stars, but also leading by example in practices and workouts – helped create the culture that allowed the Jackets to thrive when it mattered most.

“What I loved about them is they didn’t complain, they didn’t whine, they didn’t cause any issues. They were great, great leaders of a young group of girls,” Pentz said of the senior class. “I told them out there, you know, without them, I don’t know where we would’ve been. And that’s because of how great of leaders they’ve been.

“This is such a young (team) – I mean, we started two seniors tonight, and sometimes we’re only starting one. But those seniors keep that dugout composed and keep them composed, and that’s because they’ve played a lot of softball and they know what it means.”

Pentz praised the class – which consisted of Endsley, Jenna Riley, Kiannah Harris, Mia Rieder, Sydney Silvery and Azaya Rine – for its maturity and character.

Everyone brought something different to the table, Pentz said, whether it was leadership, playmaking, coachability or dugout positivity. But all were united under the concept of selflessness.

“That senior class was unselfish,” said Pentz, again growing emotional. “They were a completely unselfish senior class.”

This year’s underclassmen will look to carry the torch forward next year. Eight starters will return from this year’s district runner-up team, including six all-conference selections.

Expectations will be high, Pentz acknowledged. He hopes the Jackets will be able to use this year’s district championship loss as fuel for the season ahead.

“Last year, we got beat in the (district) semifinals, and I looked at all the underclassmen right there and I said, ‘Let’s remember this moment. Remember the air, remember the grass smell, remember everything about this moment. Embrace it and learn from it,’” Pentz said.

“I just said to them out there, ‘Remember how this feels. Remember how the air smells, the grass, everything about this day. … (And) let’s not let that happen next year. Let’s find a way to get a district championship next year.’ (Mount Vernon has won four softball district titles: in 2002, 2017, 2019 and 2021.)

“I have some amazing underclassmen,” Pentz continued, “and I think they’ll embrace this moment and learn from this moment, and I think it’ll only make us better down the road.”

Local sports are brought to you by Conway's Pharmacy in Mount Vernon and Danville.

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