Roark Uses Lasting Friendship To Maintain Momentum At Ohio
When Kenzie Roark took over the Ohio University softball program in August 2018, she arrived with a history of pitching dominance – both in the circle and from the dugout.
In four seasons as USC Upstate’s pitching coach, she helped the Spartans to three NCAA Tournament appearances, two regular season Atlantic Sun championships and three Atlantic Sun tournament championships. Her pitching rotation finished with the best ERA in the conference in three of her four seasons, including a 1.42 ERA in 2017, sixth best in the nation.
Roark finished her playing career as one of the more storied pitchers in Virginia Tech history, ranking top 10 in school history in career appearances, strikeouts, innings pitched and wins. She was part of the only Virginia Tech team to earn a trip to the Women’s College World Series.
With her success both on and off the field, she knew she could infuse her pitching philosophy into the program, but she needed collaborative minds to maximize the talent across the roster.
Roark called Ashley Taylor, one of the top power hitters in Austin Peay program history – and Roark’s childhood friend.
Roark and Taylor met in a Club K hitting class at age 10. They became friends, then grew closer when they attended Mt. Juliet High School, located outside of Nashville.
Mt. Juliet finished state runner-up in back-to-back seasons in 2006 and 2007 behind Roark’s arm. Taylor powered the offense in 2006 before joining Austin Peay, where she ranks No. 10 in career home runs.
Though at different schools, the two remained close and talked regularly. During Roark’s first season in Blacksburg, Va., Taylor challenged Roark – and perhaps herself.
"Ashley challenged me that if my team made the Women's College World Series, she would come,” Roark said. “I told her that I would hold her to that.”
Virginia Tech qualified for the NCAA Tournament as ACC Tournament champion, defeated No. 13 Tennessee twice en route to winning the Knoxville Regional, then upset No. 4 Michigan in the Ann Arbor Super Regional.
“I called Ashley when I got on the bus and told her, 'Pack your bags, you are going to Oklahoma City,’” Roark said.
Taylor stayed true to her word. Though she needed to open a new credit card to make the trip, Taylor was in the stands, cheering for her friend on the grandest stage in softball.
“When Ashley made the promise,” Roark said, “she probably didn't realize she would have to go through with it."
Roark and Taylor pursued softball careers after their playing days were behind them. Though coaching at separate schools, the friends split hotel rooms on the recruiting trail and worked camps together.
Once Roark accepted the position as Ohio head coach, she reached out to Taylor.
“Our paths have been interconnected for a long time,” Roark said. “This situation has been something that we joked about in the past – if one of us ever did this, it would be something we could pursue. We are lucky that it worked out.”
Roark inherited an Ohio team that returned five starters, won the MAC regular season and tournament, reached the NCAA Tournament and notched two victories in the Knoxville Regional.
The lineup abounds with upperclassmen experience, but the pitching circle welcomes a new challenge. The 2018 tournament team relied on 2018 MAC Pitcher of the Year Danielle Stiene, who compiled a school single-season record 29 wins with a 1.45 ERA in her senior season.
With Stiene gone, Ohio’s young pitching core, led by returning sophomore Madi McCrady, has an opportunity to grow and develop.
“I knew going in without having a ton of experience that we would have hiccups here and there,” Roark said. “With Madi, she worked through those hiccups at the beginning of the year. Her outings have been way more consistent the last couple of weeks.”
McCrady and freshman pitcher Mackensie Kohl have registered sub-3.00 ERAs through 18 games. McCrady has a league-leading eight complete games and six wins. Kohl sits at five wins.
Offensively, sophomore Katie Yun and senior Morgan Geno pace the Bobcats. Yun has registered a 16-game hit streak this season, while Geno leads Ohio with five home runs and 22 RBIs.
Coming off a 4-1 weekend that included three come-from-behind wins, an extra-inning victory and a win over Mississippi State, Ohio rests at 11-7. The team’s drive most impressed Roark.
"A lot of heart, a lot of fight,” Roark said. “They are not going to be denied. They really came together and decided that's what they want to be."