New era, same results for Lady Knights


Johanna Duran has experienced a lot in her career with the John F. Kennedy Campus girls softball program.

In her first three seasons, Duran was part of a team that won two straight division titles, played in a Public School Athletic League city championship game, and posted a combined 39-3 regular-season mark.

But Duran knows things might be a little different this season as several talented players graduated — the most painful departure being that of former star pitcher Stacy Hernandez.

“I feel it’s going to be a very interesting season,” Duran said. “We already know there are going to be more ups and downs this year, and there are some games we may lose. I think there will be a lot of close games this season when last year there weren’t so many.”

Duran was spot-on with her prediction as the Lady Knights opened their season with a feels-like-old-times 26-6 victory over Roosevelt before needing to dig out of a seven-run hole to rally for a 12-11 victory over Clinton in its second game of the season.

Their 2-0 record may look like a familiar start to the season for the Lady Knights, but this Kennedy team may not be the dominant one of seasons past. At least not right away, according to head coach Keith Mansfield.

“We have a lot of stuff to work on,” Mansfield said. “We’re a new team with a new identity now, and we have to figure out how we’ll play best. But once we do that, this team will compete and a have a good chance to be in the playoffs again.”

In the season opener, the Lady Knights spotted Roosevelt an early 3-2 lead. But Kennedy stormed back with a vengeance, scoring 14 times in the bottom of the second and adding 10 more runs in the third to turn a tight contest into a laugher.

Lisbeth Martinez led the Kennedy effort with five RBIs while Alexia Arias and Emelin Munoz knocked in three runs each. The trio of Jade Soto, Rachael Ramirez and Duran all drove in a pair of runs each.

On the offensive side, at least, it felt like old times.

“Yeah, that hasn’t changed much,” Duran said, with a laugh. “We started a little late, but once we got our heads in the game and warmed up, we were ready to go.”

Cierra Benitez, Martinez and Duran all had two RBIs each in the victory over Clinton.

But it’s Benitez who has the unenviable task of following in the footsteps of the departed Hernandez, the Lady Knights’ ace hurler for the past four seasons. Benitez got the win in both of Kennedy’s games, but it was a bumpy ride at times for the junior right-hander.

In the Roosevelt win, Benitez allowed just one hit but walked 11. Against Clinton, Benitez gave up five hits and five earned runs while walking eight. She is a work in progress that Mansfield thinks will improve as the season progresses.

“Cierra had been pitching better in scrimmages, but (against Roosevelt) she was a little wild,” the coach said. “I think a lot of that had to do with her being the new pitcher and it being cold.”

Duran, the senior captain, thinks the Knights’ pitching will again be dominant this season once Benitez gets a few games under her belt.

“I felt she did a great job,” Duran said. “She kept her head, she concentrated, and she didn’t lose it out there. I thought she did really good, and she’ll get even better.”

The one big takeaway Mansfield had from the season’s first two games was that this team possesses the never-say-die attitude that is reminiscent of his past great teams.

“We still have a lot of stuff to learn, we had a lot of new girls on the field,” Mansfield said. “But they fight and they stay positive. I know they have each other’s back, but discipline is something we have to work on. That, and hustling.

“Once Cierra gets her act together, she could be a really good pitcher. She just has to keep working hard in practice, and it will come and she’ll be ready to go.”

If she does that, Duran thinks this could be another special season for Kennedy.

“Once we start practicing more and get into our rhythm,” she said, “I think we could be even better than last year.”