You take the highs with the ‘Jo’s:
After 3rd state title of year, Pioneer’s Walker values team, community bond
BY VAL TSOUTSOURIS
Sports Editor, RTC
GREENWOOD –- Mackenzie Walker was not merely a witness to history. She was an active participant.
She had eight kills, seven assists, 21 digs and 14 serves received when Pioneer defeated Loogootee to win the Class 1A volleyball title on Nov. 7. She had five assists and the game-clinching steal just before the final buzzer in Pioneer’s 43-42 win over Loogootee in the Class 1A basketball state championship game on Feb. 27.
And then there was Saturday.
The Pioneer senior catcher won their third state championship of the 2020-21 school year when the top-ranked Lady Panthers beat No. 10 Sullivan 4-2 in the Class 2A softball state championship game at Center Grove Elementary School’s Russ Milligan Field Saturday.
Walker had two of Pioneer’s four hits. She was hit by a pitch and scored the tying run on an error in the top of the sixth inning.
Defensively, she routinely handled Kendal Edmondson’s foul pop in the second inning and turned the pivot on an unusual, rally-killing 1-2-5 double play in the fourth inning that prevented Sullivan from extending what was a 2-1 lead at the time.
She also navigated the game with classmate, battery mate and state mental attitude award winner Hailey Gotshall.
“Unbelievable,” Walker said. “Right now, being a three-time state champ in one year, it’s just a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for us. I couldn’t be more proud of the team and the community that comes out and supports us every time.”
Afterwards, Walker spoke of the relationships that high school sports have provided her.
“Most importantly, you’ve just got to believe in the team,” Walker said. “That’s the most important part of every single sport. And that’s what we did at Pioneer. Being a three-time state champ, we just worked hard, and we had dedication throughout the whole season.”
Pioneer became the first school to win state titles in volleyball, girls basketball and softball in IHSAA history. Walker was one of seven student-athletes who played on all three teams. Adeline Cripe, Hailey Cripe, Kylie Attinger, Brooklyn Borges, Crystabelle Blickenstaff and Madison Blickenstaff were the other six.
She credited the athletes’ mental fortitude.
“We had the mindset that we wanted to do what we wanted to do,” Walker said. “We wanted to win state. We wanted to go out with a bang. And we did.”
Though Pioneer outscored their opponents 61-6 during their seven-game state tournament run, they also trailed both Boone Grove in the sectional semifinals and Sullivan going into the sixth inning.
“It takes a lot,” Walker said. “Sometimes, teams will get in their head if they fall behind, but we know we’ll come back. We don’t like to lose, so all we can do is win.”
Except they didn’t win their season opener. Pioneer lost 5-4 to Delphi. After that, they only lost once the rest of the season. They finished the season with a 23-game winning streak, and one of the 23 wins during the streak came in a rematch against Delphi in a tournament at Twin Lakes.
“Yes, it was,” Walker said when asked if the first Delphi game was a motivator. “Going in, I was expecting a really good season for that game. And losing it made me want to win all the others.”
Walker, who will play collegiately at Huntington University, hit .534, socked 11 homers and drove in 49 runs. She was voted second-team Class 1A/2A All-State and was also a first-team Academic All-State honoree.
She had at least one hit in 31 of the 34 games she played. She hit for the cycle in a 23-0 win in five innings over Rochester on April 16.
But perhaps true to her nature, she didn’t know she had hit for the cycle until she was told after the game.
“They’re very happy all the time,” junior center fielder Kylie Farris said of seniors Walker, Hailey Gotshall and Madison Blickenstaff. “They’re always fun to joke with. They keep it light in the dugout and stuff.”
Walker said she has been playing since she was a kindergartener playing T-ball. She said her love for the game really grew around age 8.
“I don’t know if I’ve always loved it,” Walker said. “Probably the first time I played All-Stars was when I started getting that passion for it.”
Walker plays on the Indy Dreams travel team during the summer. Hailey Cripe, her Pioneer teammate, is also her Indy Dreams teammate. She has traveled as far as the Myrtle Beach, S.C. area to play a travel ball game.
“The team just brings a whole new atmosphere because of the competition that we play,” Walker said. “It’s just a lot of fun to go out there to face pitchers that are going D1 or D2.”
Pioneer seniors Mackenzie Walker, left, and Madison Blickenstaff share a moment after the Lady Panthers beat Sullivan 4-2 in the Class 2A state championship game at Center Grove Elementary School Saturday. Walker and Blickenstaff were the two seniors who played on Pioneer’s state title-winning volleyball, basketball and softball teams in 2020-21. That’s Pioneer athletic director John Bingaman in the background.