EDDYVILLE — It isn’t often a small-school softball program in west Kentucky has a plethora of its senior talent headed to the next level.
But on Tuesday afternoon at Lee S. Jones Park, three inked national letters of intent dried faster than the misty, tearful eyes of Lyon County coach Jason Collins — caught off-guard by the emotions and the magnitude of the event.
One signature from his star pitcher in Kaelyn Conger (Quincy University, Great Lakes Valley Conference, Division II).
One signature from his star catcher in Sydney Melton (Southeast Missouri State, Ohio Valley Conference, Division I).
And one signature from his star shortstop, and daughter, Calista Collins (Rutgers University, Big Ten Conference, Division I).
The trio, often playing together somewhere — anywhere — since roughly 8 years old, are now bound for bigger, better things.
“And probably longer than that, honestly,” Collins said. “So, just getting to sign here with them at the softball field really meant a lot.”
“I thought it was amazing, because not many schools get to do this,” noted Melton. “Not many schools get three (softball) commits in one class.”
Added Conger: “Growing up with both of these girls and playing with them since we were younger ... getting to do this together today was awesome.”
More than 18 months removed from live KHSAA softball action, Collins, Melton and Conger were the heart of a Lady Lyons batting order and infield that prowled all the way to the 2019 Second Region championship game — before falling 3-0 to vaunted Madisonville-North Hopkins.
Finishing 26-13 overall, Lyon County boasted the best regional record (16-4) and the best district record (9-1, Fifth District) in the Second, thanks to some eye-popping numbers from the three:
• Collins hit .566 with 15 HR, 54 RBIs, 44 R, 16 2B, 18 BB and nine stolen bases.
• Melton hit .432 with eight HR, 33 RBIs, 46 R, 10 2B, 15 BB and three stolen bases.
• Conger hit .321 with five HR, 34 RBIs, 16 R, 15 2B, eight walks and five stolen bases, while serving as the team’s No. 2 ace, going 11-3 with a 3.22 ERA, 105 strikeouts and two saves.
And this is when they were sophomores. Their junior numbers most likely would’ve been equal, or improved. A global pandemic thwarted the opportunity to showcase any growth, but not before programs came calling for their talents.
“Whenever my coach (Kristen Butler, former SEC Player of the Year) talked to me, I had never really emailed really any school that far north,” Collins said. “She just came to watch me play, and she said I reminded her a lot of herself whenever she played at Florida. It was only a few tournaments, I think, that they really scouted as much, but she really liked the way that I played, and thought I would fit in well. Knowing she thinks that way of me — that I remind her of her — that’s a huge compliment to me, because she was a great player. I think she understands a bit, and I’m really excited to play for her.”
“I went to many camps up there, and (Mark Redburn) watched me grow and become the athlete that I am today,” added Melton. “So I think he knows my talent, and what I can bring to the table.”
Conger took a longer approach to recruitment, and announced her decision to join the Hawks this past summer.
“(Coach Carla Passini) told me that I was going to pitch and possibly play the corners and hit,” Conger noted. “And my story is a little bit different. We started talking this (past) summer, and the first phone call with her — it was just a connection right away. She always told me that I was ‘a gem.’ That’s what she always told me. We just had that connection right away, and it was really great.”
With commitments and signings out of the way, the trio can now turn to more immediate work, in an off-season like no other.
The anticipation is that KHSAA spring athletes won’t miss the 2021 campaign, especially after having to put aside emotions in a missed 2020 slate, and coach Collins has drafted a deliciously difficult schedule that includes a number of home-and-away matchups against the First Region (Calloway County, Graves County, McCracken County, Marshall County), noted Second Region dignitaries (Webster County, Madisonville-North Hopkins, Caldwell County), another strong district slate and the All “A” Second Region Tournament — a slate the Lady Lyons hope propels them not only to a deep All “A” State Tournament run, but perhaps spurns a deep KHSAA State Tournament finish.
“I don’t think we’re thought of as an underdog now,” Melton said. “So we’re working toward more than we have before. I think people saw us more as an underdog a couple of years ago, and now that they’ve played us, they’ve seen what we can do. I don’t think we’re as much of an underdog now.”
“One thing about coming off a season like we did (a couple) years ago is there are a lot of expectations,” Collins added. “And sometimes those expectations can be quickly brought down to reality whenever you start playing. We didn’t get to see what happened last season with that, but we did lose Allye Culp and Nelli Walker, and they were really helpful for us. We still have to work on filling those positions. And coming from a school like this, it’s kind of hard to find (spots) like that. So I think we’re still underdogs. I like to look at ourselves that way, just so we don’t have those expectations all the time.”
Conger closed: “Last year, not getting to play, it’s kind of a setback. But I feel like all of us are going to work really hard this year, and come and really be ready to play.”