Photo by Jeff Yoder
Your Prep Sports
IOWA CITY – It was a trio of eighth-graders that led the revitalization of the City High softball program last season.
Before taking a single high school class Ayana Lindsey, Carey Koenig and Ella Cook provided an immediate influx of talent and a boost in energy that breathed life into a program that had won 28 games in its previous three seasons combined.
It was that trio that keyed one of the biggest turnarounds in Class 5A last season helping City High to its first 20-win season since 2012.
This year it has been the breakthrough of a sophomore duo that has been a key in the Little Hawks’ continued surge toward the top of Class 5A.
Sophomores Keli Potter and Sydney Fellows each posted career-best seasons this summer to lead City High to its first state tournament appearance since 2001.
“Those two have just taken off, they’ve been huge, absolutely huge for us,” City High coach Jeff Koenig said of Potter and Fellows. Without those two, you are going to take of five or six wins, you are going to go from being a three seed (at regionals) to a four or five. They have just been absolutely huge.”
How big have Potter and Fellows been in the middle of the City High lineup this season?
Try a combined 14 home runs and 82 RBIs big.
Entering Tuesday’s Class 5A state quarterfinal with defending champion Pleasant Valley (33-7) Potter leads the Little Hawks with a .383 batting average.
Fellows is hitting .328 and ranks second on the team with 42 RBI.
“The biggest difference this season is just how close we are as a team,” Fellows said. “I think our team chemistry just helps a lot and being around each other has just made us all together.”
Fellows and Potter didn’t always feel the closeness.
When they joined the program as eighth-graders two years ago City High was struggling through a 12-30 season.
The team chemistry and confidence was low, so too was offensive production.
“I don’t think people really expected to win or get hits or win games,” Potter said.
That started to change last season.
With a boost from incoming eighth-graders Cook, Lindsey and Koenig the Little Hawks suddenly had some juice.
After a regional loss to Cedar Rapids Kennedy ended City High’s season at 20-21 Potter and Fellows got to work.
“It was July 8 when we bowed out last year and they didn’t say ‘I’ll be back in April or May to pick up a glove or a bat,’ they played until the end of October and they played again this spring,” Koenig said. “They have put the time and effort in to it and they are kids that I can use as an example of here are kids that have continued to progress and it’s because they work at it. They play all the time.”
The work has paid off big for Fellows, Potter and the Little Hawks this season.
A starter since her eighth-grader year, Fellows already has career highs in hits, runs, doubles and home runs entering the state tournament.
“It’s a lot of offseason work but it’s also having confidence in your teammates and yourself,” Fellows said. “Those two-run or three-run homers come because hitting is contagious it just gets you more excited to hit when everyone is hitting.”
Potter has been one of the brightest stars on a City High lineup suddenly loaded with big bats.
The sophomore second baseman has also been one of the biggest surprises in the state.
Potter was a sub .200 hitter with eight career varsity hits in her first two prep seasons and spent most of last year rotating between sophomore and junior varsity.
She enters state tournament play hitting a team-high .383 with 20 extra-base hits including seven home runs and 40 RBI.
“It’s really crazy,” Potter said pausing to laugh. During the offseason I tried to work my hardest. This year I got my chance and it’s crazy how the year has gone.”
Koenig doesn’t think it’s crazy at all.
To the fourth-year City High coach it’s a product of work that started during the offseason and led to a more confident and aggressive hitting approach.
“I think it goes back to the confidence,” Koenig said. “I think they are just a lot more confident in the batters box and they don’t get cheated. When they see the pitch they want to drive they make sure they put a good swing on it.”
Fellows and Potter have added pop to the middle of a Little Hawk lineup that already featured a pair of boppers in Koenig (8 home runs, 53 RBI) and Cook (17 extra-base hits).
Potter entered the season with one extra-base hit, a home run last year.
Fellows had 14 extra-base hits and two home runs in 234 career at-bats before this season.
The power numbers for both have exploded this season.
“It’s coaching and getting stronger,” Potter said. “Coach advised us to go to weight lifting and I took strength training as school. I tried to do everything I could to get stronger.”
Potter has 12 doubles to go with her seven home runs. She homered, tripled and drove in four runs in a 16-8 regional semifinal win over Prairie.
Nearly half of Fellows’ 33 hits this season have gone for extra bases.
“I think the first couple of years Syd just wanted to make contact, now she wants to do damage,” Koenig said. “Keli Potter swings the bat harder than any kid on our team. She wants to hit. She is going to strike out a few times but when she squares a ball up it’s going to be a line drive, it’s going to be over the fence or it’s going to be hit hard.”
The next step for Potter, Fellows and City High is to continue their torrid hitting on the state’s biggest stage.
City High gets that chance when it faces a top-ranked Pleasant Valley squad that it split a doubleheader with in May.
“I think now that we’ve made it to Fort Dodge we are back to where we need to be,” Fellows said. “17 years is a long time and we’ve worked really hard to be where we wanted to be and we are finally there and now we need to show what we can do.”