Coming into the 2019 season, Arizona State senior Taylor Becerra had been a starter at third base for the previous three seasons.
She had been placed in an everyday slot on the hot corner for the Sun Devils, and things didn’t look to change any time soon. A two-time All Pac-12 Selection and a hitter who has been around a .300 clip for nearly three years, it would seem odd if Becerra wasn’t penciled into the starting lineup.
However, Becerra’s senior year has been one that is littered with unfortunate injuries. She was hindered by back issues early on, and on April 27, she sustained a season-ending knee injury against Stanford. Despite the difficulties and the unideal circumstances, she has kept a positive outlook throughout.
With Becerra gone from the lineup though, the question would arise - Who is to step in at third base?
Enter sophomore Kiara Kennedy.
Kennedy, a Phoenix native and Desert Vista High School alum who transferred from Utah Valley University, appeared in just 14 games with three starts last season in the Western Athletic Conference (WAC) as a freshman. She hit .083 and was 1-12.
This season under head coach Trisha Ford in Tempe, Kennedy has flipped that script completely. She has started in 31 games in place of the injured Becerra and is batting .270. Since Becerra’s season-ending knee injury, Kennedy is batting .333 with five RBI’s in the final eight games of the regular season.
A day after Becerra’s injury in Palo Alto, Kennedy drove in the go-ahead game-winning run against the Cardinal and turned a 5-4-3 double play in the seventh inning. Last Saturday at Oregon, she belted her first home run in the Pac-12 Conference. Becerra knew it was only a matter of time. Kennedy just had to realize it was her time to grab the reigns.
“When stuff like this happens (with injuries), I was like, ‘This is you. This is your time now. Step up, you’re good. Stop acting like you’re not,’” said Becerra of her message to Kennedy. “I think for me, it was reminding her that she deserves to be here as much as anyone else. That kind of helped her and I think when she stepped in, it was like nothing to her. She had done it before...I think us helping each other even as I am injured, it’s going to be important.”
Thus, Kennedy has taken the position with poise. This weekend, she will make her first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance while starting at third base in maroon and gold.
Becerra will be with her every step of the way.
“I think it’s going to be really important for me to be in her ear and help her and let her know about stuff that I have experienced at this level,” Becerra said. “She’s never been to postseason with a team like this, so I think it’s going to be important for me to give her all the knowledge I have.”
As for Kennedy’s story on how she landed back home in Arizona, she detailed the experience earlier this season. It was a seamless transition that intertwined with challenges.
“The transition has been very challenging, which is something I love,” Kennedy said. “It’s nice to be back home and it’s a great feeling to be here. I feel at home and everything feels so natural. I thrive from it and work everyday.”
One of Kennedy’s initial challenges in coming to ASU was fielding habits. It was a work in progress to learn new concepts that were donned upon her from a new coaching staff.
With the help of a stout defensive infield that features junior shortstop Jade Gortarez and sophomore Bella Loomis, Kennedy made the adjustments necessary.
Kennedy also changed her swing at Utah Valley. It was a change that was brought upon by a different coaching staff. She re-adjusted and altered her mechanics back at ASU, and the changes have helped thus far.
Off the field, she settled right back in to the busy campus in Tempe as well. It was an adjustment compared to the quiet surroundings of Orem, UT.
“It’s very laid back in Utah. Not a lot of people and it’s pretty small compared to here (at ASU),” Kennedy said. “It’s a bigger atmosphere and it’s a lot more people...It’s nice.”
Kennedy returned the Valley of the Sun knowing familiar faces too. She played with or against nearly all the hometown talent on the Sun Devil roster at one point in time. That includes Loomis and sophomore first baseman Denae Chatman.
Ultimately, Kennedy has immersed herself into the program nicely. She brings a newfound confidence, and vocals as well. Just ask any of her teammates.
During the team’s first road trip of the year to Palm Springs, the Sun Devils have an annual tradition called “Buseoke,” where new players on the roster put on headphones and belt out lyrics to a song of their choice in front of all their teammates. It’s somewhat of a team-bonding ritual.
Kennedy sang “Love,” by Keyshia Cole. Her teammates were dazzled.
“Keke (Kiara) is a really good singer,” said freshman pitcher Abby Andersen.
Junior catcher Maddi Hackbarth agreed.
“Buseoke, you have Beats (headphones) and no one else can hear the music except for the person singing...Keke, she was like Beyonce up there hitting high notes. It was crazy,” Hackbarth joked.
Whether it’s hitting high notes with lyrics, or hitting high fly balls for a first Pac-12 home run, Kennedy has settled in. She has faced some of the best competition in the country already, and more challenges stand in her way as ASU ventures into the Tuscaloosa Regional this weekend.
It’s a new opportunity, and one that she’s excited to take on. She’s ready to go to battle behind head coach Trisha Ford and her Sun Devil counterparts.
“With Coach Ford, she was hungry. She has that tenacity,” said Kennedy on why she elected to play at ASU. “She’s willing to bring in good players and she wants that good energy and that bite. I love that. Ever since I was growing up, you got to have the heart to play softball. You got to have fight, and that’s something I was always used to growing up.”