By Carey Phillips
Three Smoky Mountain seniors signed to play Division I softball in a ceremony Nov. 10 at the school’s football stadium.
Shortstop Kennedy Stewman and catcher K.J. Ammons will stay close to home and play for Western Carolina. Pitcher Alannah Hopkins will head up the mountain to Appalachian State.
“It’s so awesome just to be a tiny part of this,” SM Coach Morgan Blanton said. “All their success and talent is home grown. It’s from their dedication and work ethic and the support they have from their families. The three of them have played together and stuck together. They didn’t stop when it got hard. They kept going.”
The trio helped the Lady Mustangs to the first conference championship in program history in the spring. The squad went 10-2 in a campaign that was shortened due to COVID-19.
“All three are assets to our team,” Blanton said. “Obviously, you can’t have a team without other girls, but their leadership is vital to our team. We’re getting excited about the season. The weather at signing day was softball weather. It got me more pumped up for the season.”
“I think it goes without saying we are very excited to have Kennedy and K.J. as part of our Catamount softball family,” WCU Coach Jim Clift said. “Both are outstanding athletes and softball players. Both Kennedy and K.J. have been coming to our softball camps since they were 8 years old. Both know our program and the coaching staff very well. That will be an advantage when it comes to making the transition from high school ball to college. Both Kennedy and K.J. have played at the highest level of travel ball with the Tennessee Fury organization. They have done everything they can to prepare themselves for playing at the next level. Both Kennedy and K.J. are already ambassadors for our program and are very well known in our community. Because of those two, we may have to think about expanding the seating capacity of the softball stadium!”
Stewman said she chose Western because of her love for the campus and the coaches as well as it being home.
“I knew if I went there my whole support system that has been with me since I was 6 years old would get to watch me play and finish my career,” she said.
She said she looked at some other Southern Conference and mid-major schools, but “Western was just the right choice.”
She said going to WCU will allow her to follow in the footsteps of her mother, who is a Western alum.
Stewman plans to major in marketing and business and minor in Spanish and pursue a career in public relations.
She started playing T-ball at age 3 and softball at age 5 and began to think abut playing in college around age 11 or 12.
“It really was a dream come true,” Stewman said of signing the National Letter of Intent. “It was even more amazing because I had been committed for a year. I felt like it took forever for it to get here. It was awesome to finally sign the papers.”
A middle infielder in high school, Stewman has played mainly corner infield positions in travel ball, a role she expects to fill at WCU.
She is looking forward to continuing her career with Ammons as her teammate.
“It’s exciting to pretty much play your whole career with someone, and we get to keep doing that in college,” Stewman said.
She said her father along with Hopkins’ and Ammons’ fathers have coached them from T-ball up and now they will have connections in college.
Stewman batted .455 with six home runs and 14 RBIs for the Lady Mustangs while earning all-conference honors last season. She’s ready for one final high school season.
“I’m super excited about the season,” Stewman said. “We were really successful last year. A lot of our key players will be returning so I think we will go really far next season.”
Stewman said she feels she is ready to play at the next level and attributed much of that preparedness to playing for Pat Moyer in travel ball since age 12.
“I 1,000 percent believe he has prepared me to play college ball at the next level and be successful,” she said “I also feel being a three-sport athlete in high school has made me super well-rounded and helped me to work on my time management.”
She thanked her parents, friends, coaches and teammates, including teammates when she was young and in other sports, for helping her reach the goals she has achieved so far.
“I think Kennedy will do great things,” Blanton said. “She’s the type of kid who never meets a stranger. When she steps between those lines she is going to give her all and give 110 percent. That driven determination is something you want in every kid, and with her leadership skills we have that. She’s a verbal leader, and I think she’s going to bring that to Western.”
“Kennedy seems to have spent her life training to be a leader,” Clift said. “While she is an outstanding softball player, both offensively and defensively, Kennedy is an awesome on-field leader. Kennedy is a high energy, ‘I got your back’ teammate. As a hitter, Kennedy can use the entire field, and if the pitcher is not careful, Kennedy will go yard at any time.”
Ammons said the softball program and the coaches were the reasons she is going to Western.
She added that Madison Armstrong, a WCU assistant coach, was an intern in a weights class at Smoky Mountain.
“We built that relationship, and I’ve been going to Western camps since I was 8 years old,” Ammons said. “I know Coach Clift, and we built that relationship and it’s home. It’s so pretty here.
“I was talking to Tennessee for awhile and then it just hit me that I wanted to go to Western,” she said.
She expects local fans to attend games to watch her and Stewman play for WCU.
“It’s awesome,” Ammons said of playing with Stewman. “We’ve been friends since T-ball. I think it’s great that we are going to get to spend our last four years playing softball together.”
Ammons plans to major in forensic science.
“I want to do something with the DNA part of it,” she said.
Ammons started playing softball at age 6 and then moved into travel ball.
“Ever since I started playing softball I had this dream of going Division I and playing all these elite teams,” she said. “I was probably around 11 when I figured out that I actually had a shot of playing in college.”
Having that dream for so long made last week’s signing special.
“It was very exciting,” Ammons said. “It was a relief because I’ve been waiting to do this forever. As soon as I verballed (in February) I was ready to make this official. It’s amazing.”
Ammons said she has spent most of her career as a catcher and has recently started playing corner infield spots in travel ball.
“I obviously have a lot of work to do, but I feel like I’m ready,” she said of moving on to college. “All of my previous travel ball coaches and my family have helped me out. The only reason I’m able to play softball is because of the support from them.”
She also gave credit to Mark Weekly, her hitting coach. She played for him as a freshman at The Kings Academy near Knoxville, Tennessee.
Ammons was conference player of the year this spring when she hit .581 with eight home runs and 16 RBIs. She is looking forward to her senior high school season.
“I’m super excited,” she said. “I can’t wait to see how far we go. I’m kind of sad though because this is my last year of playing high school ball and last year of playing with Alannah.”
The battery mates may be facing off against each other in 2022 when Appalachian and WCU play.
“It’s crazy,” Ammons said. “It’s awesome that were going to play against each other, but it’s also nerve wracking.”
“I think K.J. will do great,” Blanton said. “She’s had a little bit of adversity. She went to Tennessee her first year and played with some girls she didn’t know. When you go to college, she might not know those other girls. I think she’s already had that preparation step for college softball. It’s something she is comfortable with. You are going to see the same success when she gets to that level. She is going to go out there and do her job.”
“K.J. is the consummate power hitter and swings a bat you can build a line-up around,” Clift said. “A very physical athlete who moves well in the field, K.J is also very versatile. She can play catcher, or either one of the corners and is a great teammate and a heads-up player.”
While Ammons and Stewman made their decisions several months ago, Hopkins didn’t decide on Appalachian until last month.
“I’m a mountain girl and love the mountains,” she said. “I like a few of the traits they have such as a blue collar work ethic and the underdog role. They want to compete with everybody, and you earn your spot. It’s a beautiful campus. I’ve heard it described as ‘a field of dreams.’ It’s a beautiful location, and it feels like home.”
As she tried to make a college decision, Hopkins said people told her “When you know, you know.”
“I didn’t really believe them until I was at App,” she said. “I felt right at home with the coaches and players. I don’t know how to describe it.”
She added, “I had a few other schools I was talking to and had some offers. I’m grateful for those opportunities and the coaches and wonderful people I’ve met on my journey.”
Hopkins plans to major in exercise science with a minor in coaching.
She grew up in a softball family and said she was at the field with her parents from the time she was a baby. She started playing T-ball at age 5 and travel ball at age 8.
“Pretty much since I was born, I’ve had a ball in my hands,” she said.
She remembered the first year at her age level that players were allowed to pitch.
“They didn’t have a pitcher,” she said. “I tried it, and I fell in love with it.”
That led to a dream of playing in college.
“I think the moment I knew I wanted to play college ball was when I started playing travel ball and it was getting more serious,” Hopkins said. “The dream really started when I was 10 or 11.”
Therefore Wednesday of last week was very special.
“It means so much,” Hopkins said of signing. “I don’t think I stopped smiling all day long. People were telling me that they didn’t think they had seen me smile that big. Now it’s time to keep putting in the work and getting better every day.”
Hopkins was conference pitcher of the year after posting a 1.06 ERA. She had 129 strikeouts and just four walks in 79 innings.
“I’m really excited for my senior season,” she said. “I’m so glad I have these wonderful teammates. I think it’s going to be a good year. We’ve been working hard, and I’m excited to see what happens.”
After this season, she knows the tables could be turned and she could be facing Ammons and Stewman from the circle.
“That’s something everybody asks about,” Hopkins said. “It’s a big rivalry, but it will be really exciting to play against those girls I’ve grown up with.”
She’s now ready to take that next step.
“I feel like I’m as prepared as I can be,” she said. “I’m ready to see what else I need to do to get ready. Hopefully I will start getting some workout information from my coaches at Appalachian, and I will be as prepared as I can be when I get there.”
Hopkins expressed thanks to the entire community as well as her past coaches, parents and family for helping her achieve the goal of playing in college. She mentioned Moyer, her travel ball coach, and the entire athletic department and coaches at Smoky Mountain.
“Really it’s just the entire community because their support has been unreal,” Hopkins said.
“Alannah’s dedication to the game is going to let her success be shown no matter what state she is in, what field she is at or what inning it is,” Blanton said. “She hit the nail on the head when she said ‘blue collar work ethic.’ You could not ask for a better role model. Appalachian should feel very lucky to have her on their team.”
“We are excited to have Alannah in our softball family,” Appalachian Coach Shelly Hoerner said. “She is a competitor in all areas of her life which we love. Her motivation, drive and passion for the game of softball will fit into what we are building here at App State. As a pitcher, Alannah controls the game, has great movement and will keep batters off balance. We love her blue collar work ethic, her leadership skills and more importantly the character she brings as a person.”