Mack Leonard Wears Her Family's Legacy On Her Sleeve
Ken Leonard put the final touches on his creation. He walked about 30 feet away from the backyard pitching mound he made for his daughter, Mack. As Ken started to crouch down into a catching position, Lana, Mack’s mother, stood next to Mack, coaching her through the pitching workout they were about to do.
Mack Leonard’s parents set her on a path to where she is today: a softball student-athlete at Illinois State. The two-way college softball junior plays for coach Melinda Fischer, who also coached Lana while she was a Redbird. Meanwhile, Ken’s athletic career took place on the track at Illinois State. He was the 1991 Missouri Valley Conference Champion in the decathlon and runner-up in 1992 and 1993.
The couple truly established an athletic lifestyle for Mack and her sister, Machayla, a former Illinois State volleyball player.
“I probably wouldn’t be an athlete if it wasn’t for them,” Leonard told Softball America in a phone interview. “My dad did pretty much whatever I asked and didn’t complain about it. He’d catch my workouts, he’d front toss to me, hit with me. My mom was my pitching coach up until high school...I wouldn’t be the athlete I am today without them pushing me and constantly getting me into different training programs. They’re the biggest influence in my athletic career.”
But, it hasn’t always been easy for Leonard. Her father passed away during her junior year of high school. Of course it was tough for her, but Leonard wanted people to continually know who her father was and how proud she is to be his daughter. So she wears it on her sleeve. Tattooed on Leonard’s left forearm you’ll find the word “dad” intertwined with an image of Ken's heartbeat.
“I like having it on my arm because then people always ask me about it and I love talking about my dad,” Leonard said. “I am so proud to be his daughter. I’ll tell anyone about him and my tattoo because I’m all about him.”
Leonard’s tattoo serves as a constant reminder about who helped her reach the level she has reached and why she plays with the passion she does. Fischer has seen plenty of young women come through her program, and she knows it takes someone special to turn a devastating life event into an appreciation of life.
“It says a lot about Mack,” Fischer said. “I’ve known her for a long time. I’ve watched her grow up. For Mack to be able to express herself in that respect is just very genuine. A lot of kids wouldn’t be able to do that. She has the ability to process those things and those feelings are very important to her. She likes to share those things because she’s so proud of who her parents are.”
Fischer watched Lana and Ken’s relationship develop while they were at Illinois State. Before each sport was given its own designated area at the university, Fischer’s office sat close to the track coach’s office. Ken spent a lot of time outside her office waiting to speak to the track coach, creating a lot of conversation with Fischer while he waited. Soon enough, she started to notice Ken hanging around practice, and from there, she knew something was developing.
She got to know Ken better and sees him in Mack. Fischer says Leonard also carries her mother’s determination. It was a treat for Fischer to see the relationship flourish and have a quality person come into her program because of it.
“It was just something really special between those two and it’s surreal to see both of them in Mack. She really is a combo of her parents,” Fischer said. “For her to want to be a part of that as a legacy is precious. It’s a feeling that she wants to live her legacy and relive her parents' as well.”
Leonard just laughs knowing Fischer attended her parents wedding and has been a part of her life since she could remember. Fischer will tell her about her mom at the cages and her dad running at the fieldhouse in the middle of winter and them “making eyes at each other,” which always gets a chuckle out of Leonard.
Leonard certainly makes her parents and Fischer proud as a player. Last season, she hit for a .443 batting average that was as good as hitters like Arizona State’s Kindra Hackbarth, UCLA’s Aaliyah Jordan and Nebraska’s Tristen Edwards. She did it while improving her ERA from 7.35 last year to 3.70 in 2020.
She continued that hot streak into the summer. Leonard won the most valuable player award for the Florida Gulf Coast League’s inaugural season after going 9-0 in the circle and batting .482 at the plate.
Fischer is excited for Leonard’s next step as a player for Illinois State in 2021.
“Her experience in Florida this past summer was absolutely amazing for her,” Fischer said. “She started off on fire from a hitting standpoint. She’s not your typical leadoff hitter. She became our most consistent power hitter and RBI producer. She had great weekends after great weekends.
“Her pitching really started to come around. She started to really understand that you have to have it every time you get in that circle. You might not have your best stuff each time, but you have to figure out a way to get batters out. That’s where I’ve seen Mack have tremendous improvements. She has a ton more confidence than when she left last season.”
On the field, things are coming together for Leonard. She’s put in the work, but she knows she couldn’t have done it without her parents.
“(Fischer) always tells me, ‘Yeah, Mack, you might be a better athlete than your mom.’ I just say that is because I have the genes of my mom and my dad.”