Game days for Erie softball star Kat Sackett are a walk in the park — literally.
Sackett leads the state in home runs (11) and slugging percentage (1.613) and is among the leaders in on-base-percentage (.758, fourth), runs batted in (34, sixth) and batting average (.659, seventh) for the Tigers, who began the week ranked No. 4 in the Class 4A poll with a record of 14-3 overall.
Given those numbers, many opposing teams have resorted to walking the senior catcher/first baseman rather than giving her a chance to swing the bat and do some real damage on the diamond.
Heading into October, Sackett has been walked a whopping 19 times in 66 plate appearances.
“Kat hits the ball consistently, and she hits the ball consistently hard,” explained Erie first-year head coach Vanessa Smith. “And when we have runners on base, probably a good 90 percent of the time she's going to produce for us.
“As a coach, if I were on the other team, I would do the same thing, to tell you the truth,” she said with a laugh.
The left-handed hitting Sackett has also struck out just one time this season, and her ability to make contact and put the ball in play is another reason why most teams devise a game-plan just for her.
“That's an attribute to Kat's overall personality and demeanor,” said Smith of the lone strikeout. “She's a fighter, man. She's a competitor, and she competes all the time.”
So it’s no surprise that the extra attention doesn’t faze Sackett one bit.
“I always take the same approach into the box. You never know what's going to happen,” she said. “So I always take the approach that they're going to throw to me. When I get in the box, I'm always ready. If they send me to first, then they send me to first.”
Sackett, a four-year varsity starter, earned all-state honors as a sophomore and as a junior. This past summer she added a “reset routine” to her arsenal of skills.
“It's a mental routine that I go through before and during [each] at-bat,” she explained. “Basically, I do something physical. I say something verbal in my head. I take a deep breath and then I exhale. That's usually when I get in the box and take my cut.
“The physical portion takes place in the on-deck circle,” Sackett added. “Mentally, I just try to think of how I can help my team: ‘What can I do to help us score a run?’ I find it to be really beneficial.”
Sackett learned the routine this past summer during a visit to Marshall University, where she plans to continue her softball career after graduating from Erie next spring.
“I always thought that I wanted to go to school by the beach. Most girls do,” she recalled with a laugh. “My first visit was to [the University of North Florida].”
But Sackett visited Marshall a few weeks later and soon realized that the beach wasn’t her destiny, after all.
“There is just something really special about their community because of everything that has gone down there,” she said of the Nov. 14, 1970 plane crash that killed 37 players on the Thundering Herd football team, eight members of the coaching staff, 25 boosters and five crew members.
“The whole community is really supportive of Marshall. Everybody out there is all for Marshall,” Sackett added. “When I went out there and saw this different perspective of a community, I knew that was where I needed to be.”
Before heading out to West Virginia, though, Sackett and her teammates have some unfinished business on their agenda.
Erie is a perennial power in softball and leads all divisions with 11 state championships to its credit. But the last time the Tigers walked off the field as the top 4A team in the state was back in 2010, when Sackett was in the third grade.
As a freshman in 2016, she was a key contributor on a squad that was undefeated (24-0) until it lost to Valor Christian in the championship game. In each of the last two seasons, the Tigers lost in the quarterfinals of the state tournament.
While Sackett and her teammates would love another chance to play for the state title, they are making sure to take time to enjoy every bit of the journey along the way.
“Our [team’s] motto this season is 'Remember Why We Started,'” Sackett said. “It's really easy to get caught up in [things] like winning state, winning games. But at the end of the day, high school season is our opportunity to play softball for the love of the game, when it's not a job.
“Our goal this year is to play for each other and remember why we started. If that turns out the way we would like it to, it does. But if it doesn't, we spent time loving each other and loving the game.”
It’s a mantra that Smith fully supports for her squad. The strategy was to help give her senior class of nine players – her senior leaders – ownership of the team.
“When female athletes are empowered to lead and own their season the outcome is just a lot better,” Smith said. “So I told them I wanted them to pick a quote or motto that our team would follow the entire year.
“That was the motto that they came up with, and the reason they came up with that is because a lot of these seniors are coming off a huge summer of playing competitive ball,” she said. “They average about 150 games a summer. During those games and those tournaments, they're getting recruited a lot, so there is a lot of pressure on them.
“From my experience, when you have that much pressure on you … it’s easy to forget the reason why you're playing,” Smith added. “It kind of gets gray and fuzzy because you're so focused on getting recruited and getting a college offer.
“You forget and lose your perspective of why you started playing this game and how much you love this game. [They] chose that quote together because they want this last season in high school to be fun. It helps them to play for each other, to have fun and to remember why they love the game.”
Sackett says she started playing softball when she was “probably” six-years-old, in part, to be like her older brother, Gavin, who is two years her senior.
“My brother started off in baseball, and I eventually followed in his footsteps,” she remembered.
And what is it about the game that kept Sackett coming back for more, allowing her to put up such eye-popping high school numbers (a .491 career average along with 30 HRs, 126 RBIs, 96 runs scored and 54 walks)?
“I love that I get to learn from people all the time,” she admitted. “At first, you never realize why you're playing a sport. You're just having fun. As I have grown older and had the opportunity to play with some really amazing and respected athletes, my favorite aspect has been learning from them and growing as an athlete and as a person.”
Sackett is quick to shine a spotlight on fellow senior Madysun Vaughan as another one of Erie’s key contributors. With a team-leading 35 RBIs, 10 HRs and a .483 batting average, the praise is well deserved.
“On the field, Mady Vaughan is my rock. Not only is she an amazing athlete, but she just has this wiseness to her ... I don't know how to explain it,” Sackett explained. “If I ever have a game where I'm not doing my reset routine, or I'm not focused, she has this way of bringing everybody together and focusing everybody. That's really amazing.
“I also get to play with my best friend, Megan Loveland, and that's really special,” Sackett added. “She's my pitcher. She brings this happiness, this energy to the team, and she believes in every single one of us.”
Loveland leads the pitching staff with a record of 10-2 and 58 strikeouts in 14 appearances for the Tigers.
Despite being a little hesitant at starting her senior season with a new coach, Sackett soon bought in to having Smith at the helm.
“I was really, really close with our old coach, Harold Simmons [now an assistant softball coach at the University of Northern Colorado]. Going into this year, I was kind of resistant to a new coach,” Sackett confessed. “But then I got to know Coach Smith, and she's just amazing. She always has our backs. Her saying is 'I'm going to be hard on you on the field, but I am going to love you harder off the field.'
“She follows that 100 percent, and she has been amazing.”
Smith is glad that Sackett is on her side, as well.
“She's an absolute natural at leading people, at motivating people, at inspiring people both on and off the field,” Smith said. “Kat is one of the hardest workers on our team. She doesn't cut corners. She expects a lot of herself, and she expects a lot of her teammates as well.”
Winning the championship this season after an eight-year drought won’t be an afternoon stroll for Erie, however.
Obstacles include, but are not limited to, defending state champion and Tri-Valley rival Holy Family, which is currently ranked No. 1 with a record of 16-1; second-ranked Golden (17-1); and No. 3 Pueblo South (15-1).
But with just four weeks left in her high school career, Sackett realizes that, regardless of how the final results fall, this will be a season to remember.
“For four years, I have been playing with the same nine teammates,” she said. “It's going to be weird not to have them by my side in college. They're most definitely like my second family.”