How AUX softball players want impact on Wichita to last longer than 2-week stay

Softball fans of all ages have packed Wilkins Stadium this week to watch 42 of the best professional softball players play in Wichita.

It has been a treat for the young softball players in the area the same as it has for older fans who maybe just enjoy watching the Women’s College World Series or have hopped on the Shocker bandwagon following the recent success forged by coach Kristi Bredbenner.

All eyes in the stands are trained on the star players during the 15-day Athletes Unlimited Pro Softball AUX competition hosted by Wichita State. The pros not only welcome the attention, but also understand the importance of their time in Wichita.

“We want to show girls that playing pro softball is possible,” said Jocelyn Alo, a former Oklahoma star and NCAA record-holder for career home runs. “Exposure is such an important thing because you can see girls who look like you and talk like you. You can see yourself on the field. It wasn’t that long ago when we were those girls in the stands and we were looking up to Cat Osterman and Monica Abbott and Jennie Finch. And now kids get to watch us on ESPN and watch us play in person. Exposure is so important that kids can actually see it with their own eyes and dream they can be here one day.”

There are players who are Olympians, national champions and All-Americans. There are players who are different races and ethnicities. There are players who double as college coaches, who are mothers, who work corporate jobs. There are players who graduated from blue-blood programs like Oklahoma, Arizona and Florida and players who proved themselves at mid-major powers like WSU, James Madison and Marshall.

There’s a story for almost anyone to relate to.

“I think it’s going to make a huge impact for the girls in the Midwest,” said former WSU All-American Sydney McKinney, who was raised in Norborne, Missouri (population: 636). “I feel like a lot of the big names come from the West Coast and down South, but there’s such great competition in the Midwest. So all of these girls getting to come out here and seeing this in person is huge for them.”

Just one year removed from a record-breaking career at WSU, McKinney has served as the face of AUX’s stay in Wichita. But there are two other Wichita natives who have helped bring their own share of fans to Wilkins Stadium in Maize graduate Kelsey Stewart-Hunter and former Andover Central star Julia Cottrill.

Before taking an assistant coaching job at Ohio State, Stewart-Hunter coached the high school varsity team at Kapaun Mt. Carmel and an elite travel-ball club in Wichita. Her players had always known she was an accomplished softball player, but it didn’t sink in until they saw their former coach advertised as a headliner for the AUX event.

“One of my girls saw me signing autographs and she was like, ‘Wow, you really are famous,’” Stewart-Hunter said with a laugh. “It’s so cool to see them fangirling over girls that I am proud to call teammates. I don’t think you realize how far softball can take you until you see it with your own eyes and in your own face. So (AUX) coming to a small town like Wichita, Kansas, is going to let these little girls know that they can dream big.”

While the interest in McKinney, Stewart-Hunter or Cottrill might entice young players to attend an AUX game at Wilkins Stadium — the next doubleheader is Thursday — they are also being introduced to some of the game’s biggest upcoming stars.

In her first stint with AUX, Alo has already ascended to the top of the individual leaderboard where players earn points through winning and statistics. Star pitchers like Odicci Alexander (James Madison), Montana Fouts (Alabama), Alyssa Denham (Arizona), Keilani Ricketts (Oklahoma) and Taylor McQuillin (Arizona) are on the roster, while hitters like Taylor Edwards (Nebraska), Bubba Nickles (UCLA), Erin Coffel (Kentucky) and Aubrey Leach (Tennessee) are all off to strong starts in Wichita.

“I think anybody who watches our games is going to fall in love with it,” Fouts said ahead of her pro debut. “Anybody who can come watch in person should definitely take advantage and if not, then they should watch on TV because this is going to be great.”

Players are invested in Athletes Unlimited because of the platform provided — all games are broadcast on ESPN networks — and the company’s commitment to pay players. But there’s also a shared mission: to grow the game. That’s why they’re taking time after doubleheaders are done each night to sign autographs for fans.

So while the players will be jockeying for position on the individual points leaderboard to win the AUX crown, they want their impact to last much longer than their two-week stay in Wichita.

“I would tell (girls) to never let someone tell you that you can’t do something,” Stewart-Hunter said. “Once someone tells you that, put it in your back pocket and let it motivate you. Never forget that somebody told you you couldn’t do it, so when you’re at the top, you can thank them for the motivation. Just keep going and follow your dreams and know that there’s always someone there in your corner to help you out. I know all of (the players) will always be willing to help.”