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ALL-AREA SOFTBALL | PITCHER OF THE YEAR

PITCHER OF THE YEAR: McKay Yountz leads in the circle for Opelika softball

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McKay Yountz 2.JPG

Opelika's McKay Yountz has been named Pitcher of the Year as part of the 2022 Opelika-Auburn News All-Area Softball Team.

McKay Yountz was looking around preseason practices last offseason when it dawned on her:

As pitchers and catchers reported to get set for 2022, and as the Lady Bulldogs took their first practice swings of the new season, Yountz realized the Opelika roster didn’t have any seniors for the class of 2022. She and the rest of the juniors in the class of 2023 were the veteran leaders of the team.

“Oh. It’s us,” she said.

But for Opelika, there’d be nobody better.

Opelika’s star in the circle was incredible again this season, firing 228 strikeouts for the Lady Bulldogs, and for her performance Yountz has been named Pitcher of the Year as part of the 2022 Opelika-Auburn News All-Area Softball Team.

“She really didn’t have a choice but to, and I think she did a great job doing it,” first-year Opelika coach Jessica Thornton said of Yountz stepping up as a leader. “I think she’s really great at leading by example, and I think she gets vocal when she needs to.

“With her being our ace, and being a junior and not having any seniors, she kind of didn’t have a choice but to step into that role, and I think she did a great job doing it.”

In Thornton’s first season at the helm, Opelika won the Area 4-6A championship and advanced to the regional round of the Class 6A playoffs. Opelika has been through turnover at head coach for the past few seasons, but one constant has been Yountz’s play in the circle as a rising pitcher.

This season, she delivered on her potential putting together an impressive campaign.

“I feel like we bonded as a team better,” Yountz said. “We fought harder. We were able to have more endurance to finish through every game, to fight back literally to the seventh inning every game — which, it has always been our goal to just never give up.”

Yountz finished with 63 earned runs in 146 innings pitched while rolling up all those strikeouts.

And Thornton said Yountz was vital as the Lady Bulldogs transitioned to a new coaching staff.

“There’s nothing more fun than coaching a kid that has passion for the game, and just a knowledge and an understanding of what’s going on,” Thornton said. “I think that she’s leaps and bounds ahead of where she could be, just because she thinks about what’s going on and thinks situationally. So I think her and our pitching coach, Coach (Jessica) Kennessey, are able to do some things that is kind of unique in situations just because she’s able to think about the game and what’s going on.”

Yountz said she improved this season not just with her pitching, but in how she leads the team with the ball in her hand between pitches.

As for those pitches, Yountz said she’s continuing to improve her spin because she sees it as her equalizer on the field.

“I do want to try to gain more velocity, and my goal too is to work on my changeup, and change that velocity to make it slower to throw batters off,” Yountz said. “But mainly it’s changing my changeup, making it slower, and just working on my spin, to throw them off. I’m not as big,” she laughed. “I’m a little bit smaller than normal. So I use my spin as my advantage.”

Next year, the team’s ‘seniors’ will truly be seniors, as the 2023 class enters its final season with the program, and Yountz will lead the charge one more time into the new year.

“I think I expect to get the same plus more,” Thornton said of Yountz’s senior season. “She never stops working. She’s involved in so many things outside of softball that she’s such a well-rounded person. I’m just really excited going into next year and getting the opportunity to coach her.”

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