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Sydney McKinney Proves Path To Pros For Mid-Major Players

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(Photo by Jade Hewitt/Athletes Unlimited)

Standing in the middle of St. Louis Lambert International Airport after polishing off another weekend of games and looking ahead to the American Athletic Conference Championship, Sydney McKinney was at the peak of her softball career.

She was one of the best hitters in the country, leading nationally in batting average, and an all-time leader at Wichita State in batting average, hits, runs scored, on-base percentage and total bases. Her 34-game hitting streak from earlier in the season was the sixth-longest in NCAA history. As a fifth-year senior nearly about to end this chapter of her life, she was untouchable.

But, amidst her travel day, the Athletes Unlimited Softball College Draft was unraveling and McKinney was about to find out the fate of her future softball career. And alongside her fellow Shockers teammates and coaches, being called the No. 1 draft pick certainly exceeded her expectations.

“I was so excited and shocked, honestly,” McKinney said. “My mom texted me after and she was like no offense sweetie, but we didn’t expect you to be No. 1 overall. She was like, 'I almost didn’t have my phone set up to get that on camera.' But it was really exciting, I was with my team at the airport and it was really nice to be surrounded by all my teammates, coaches and friends.”

Going pro was something McKinney knew she had in her since she really started to shine at the plate during her junior year and was one of only two players in the country to hit better than .500 for the season.

“My junior year of college I realized I could play at the next level,” McKinney said. “In high school, I was so focused on getting to college, getting my degree and playing softball to the best of my abilities. The idea of (playing) pro didn’t come about until my junior year, and I was like, 'You know what, if I work hard enough, I am good enough to go and play at the next level.'”

Wichita State went on to lose in the Fayetteville Regional, putting an end to its 2023 campaign, but McKinney only had 22 days between her college career ending and her professional journey beginning with AUX. The transition was swift, but being thrown into a mix of incredible talent was the best way for her to adapt.

“It was crazy for me to be the oldest on my college team and play with 18-year-olds and jumping to pro and being the youngest playing with 30-year-olds,” McKinney said. “I got to play and I had a lot of fun and I feel like I learned so much in that short amount of time. The hardest part is that everybody is so good. Every single game you know they are giving their best, so you have to give your absolute best every single game.”

As a scrappy player who is able to play any position in the infield and consistently produce at the plate, McKinney often takes advice from some of the other lefties in AU to understand their perspectives on the game and find ways to improve her art.

“I am around so many great people here that I have no choice but to grow,” McKinney said. “I have asked the lefties a lot about their mindset because we are all seeing the same kind of pitches and they are all about helping me in whatever way they can. I ask all the questions I can all the time and pick their brains because they are so good and I want to see what I can do differently to improve.”

With her rookie summer of Athletes Unlimited now in the books, McKinney has reflected on her quick jump from the college level to the pros. And as the game continues to grow, she wants other mid-major athletes to view themselves as potential professional athletes.

“I want mid-major players to know that it’s absolutely possible,” McKinney said. “(Mid-major players) are Division 1 athletes and play against the best teams, are some of the best teams and you might have to grind it out a little bit more, but the opportunity is still there. You just have to prove yourself.”

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