SOFTBALL: Gracey Kruse, Canaan Burnett earn top honors in Walker County

Walker County Player of the Year: Gracey Kruse (Sr.) Gordon Lee and Walker County Pitcher of the Year: Canaan Burnett (Sr.) Gordon Lee

Gracey Kruse and Canaan Burnett hadn’t even started kindergarten when Gordon Lee High School won the first of their current run of 15 consecutive region championships, but both have done plenty in the past four seasons to help add to the Lady Trojans’ incredible softball legacy.

Especially this past season.

Kruse won a second consecutive Class A Public School Player of the Year state award and Burnett added another Class A Public School All-State first team honor to her long and highly-decorated high school resume, while together they helped Gordon Lee to yet another state championship.

And today, their list of honors grows a little bit longer as the duo have been named as the Player and Pitcher of the Year, respectively, for Walker County.

For Kruse, on her way to play at nearby Chattanooga next season, it is a third straight Walker County Player of the Year award. She won the award by herself as a sophomore and shared the honor last year with Carson-Newman signee Morgan Crawford (Ridgeland).

“I just did what I could do to help the team,” she said humbly. “My confidence has grown a lot and just being in this atmosphere (at Gordon Lee) has helped. Being around this team has made me feel more comfortable and made me feel at home.”

Nowhere did Kruse feel more at home than in the batters’ box where the senior added to her incredible career offensive totals.

She hit a monstrous .581 this past fall, racking up 17 doubles, four triples and eight homers. She stole 17 bases, drove in 43 runs, scored 50 more, had an on-base percentage of .653 and a simply ridiculous 1.108 slugging percentage.

Kruse ended her career with a batting average over .500 to go with 30 homers, 205 RBIs and 115 extra-base hits, cementing her place as arguably the greatest slugger in Gordon Lee history.

She also proved to be a vocal and emotional leader for the Navy-and-White.

“I knew that if someone did say something, then it needed to be one of the older players,” she explained. “It was kind of an easy role to fall into.”

Kruse added that there were plenty of proud memories attached to her high school playing career, but that winning three state championships were at the top of that list.

“They really stand out in my mind,” she said. “Each year we won, there was a different feeling that went with each championship. Each one of them was very memorable to me.”

Burnett will be toeing the rubber at Stetson University starting next fall after adding her name to the Lady Trojans’ long and storied legacy in the circle.

She went 19-2 this past fall, striking out 109 batters and finishing the year with an ERA of 1.18. Burnett ended her prep career with 59 wins against just six losses, a 1.27 ERA and around 400 career strikeouts.

“It took me a couple of games to get adjusted this year because for a while I was really pitching against myself and what I did last year” said Burnett, referencing her 27-2, 0.90 ERA junior season that saw her earn Class A Public School Pitcher of the Year honors. “I knew it was my senior year and I wanted it to be better than the year before, but once I finally settled in and told myself that I was the same pitcher from last year, I finally got comfortable and started performing really well.”

She also credited strength training, which helped her have a career year at the plate. Burnett’s batting average (.396) and homeruns (4) were career-bests and she finished with 25 RBIs in a potent Gordon Lee lineup.

“I’ve definitely gotten stronger,” she said. “I saw that with my hitting. I hit more out this year than I have in previous years and my velocity went up a few miles an hour this year, which really helped. I got a lot more movement and spin on the ball this year and that was effective in keeping the strikeouts up and the runs down.”

A smile came to her lips when asked about the state championships, but she also cited a 2-1 home win over Class AAA powerhouse Calhoun in her junior year as one of her favorite Gordon Lee memories.

“I came out of that (state finals) game and it felt like my arm had literally been shred into pieces,” she recalled. “Looking back at it now, I see how far we came that season, but I keep asking myself how in the world I pitched that many innings that weekend. Beating Calhoun was definitely the highlight of that season and then we went on to beat every good team we played that year. That really made making it to the state championship that much sweeter.”

The 2017 Catoosa/Walker County Softball Dream Team

Dream Team First Team

Shelby Adkins (LaFayette, Jr.) - The powerful first baseman led the senior-less Lady Ramblers with a .435 average, nine doubles, 16 RBIs and 16 runs scored, assuming a role as a team leader.

Faith Alexander (Gordon Lee, Sr.) - The Kennesaw State signee battled back from off-season surgery to bat .529 with six doubles, a triple, 24 RBIs, 33 runs scored and 29 stolen bases and earning All-State  first team status.

Canaan Burnett (Gordon Lee, Sr.) - Stetson bound, the senior hit .396 with six doubles, four homers and 25 RBI, while going 19-2 in the circle with 109 strikeouts in 112.2 innings with a 1.18 ERA, earning first team All-State status and Walker County Pitcher of the Year honors.

Katie Davis (Ridgeland, Jr.) - The standout catcher stepped up at the plate this fall with a .469 average, seven doubles, a triple and three homeruns, collecting 43 RBIs and a second team All-State nod.

Ciera Foster (Ridgeland, Soph.) - It was a huge season at the plate for the standout sophomore utility player, who hit an impressive .515 with seven doubles and a pair of triples, while driving in 26 runs and scoring 39 more with a .570 on-base percentage.

Kaylie Frogge (Heritage, Soph.) - An outstanding defensive player, Frogge showed that she could handle a bat as well, hitting .471 with nine doubles, a triple, one homer and 22 RBIs, while scoring 17 runs and swiping seven bases.

Rachel Gibson (Heritage, Fr.) - Second team All-State honors went to the freshman standout who hit .318 with seven doubles, four homers and drove in 13 runs, while also winning eight games as a pitcher with 93 K’s in 65.1 innings and a 2.57 ERA.

Paxton Grimes (Gordon Lee, Jr.) - The future Tennessee Tech Golden Eagle hit 11 homers to set a new GL single-season record and batted .457 with 10 doubles, a triple and 46 RBIs to pick up first team All-State honors.

Gracey Kruse (Gordon Lee, Sr.) - The Walker County Player of the Year and future UTC Moc was named the Class A Player of the Year for a second straight season after hitting .581 with 17 doubles, four triples and eight homers with 43 RBIs, 50 runs scored and 17 stolen bases, plus a slugging percentage of 1.108.

Mallory Lowe (Heritage, Jr.) - The junior heated up as the season went on and ended up batting .490 for the 6-AAAA tournament champs with six doubles, a triple, 11 RBIs and 13 runs scored.

Emma Minghini (Gordon Lee, Fr.) - Already a Penn State commit, the rookie hit an even .400 with five doubles, two triples and 19 RBIs and went 12-1 in the circle with 57 K’s and eight walks in 65.2 innings with a 1.06 ERA to earn second team All-State.

Madi Morris (Heritage, Sr.) - Chattanooga State is the next stop for the All-State first teamer who hit .455 with nine doubles, three triples, a single-season school-mark of 10 homers and 50 RBIs, while scoring 42 runs, slugging .909 and picking up four wins in the circle to earn Catoosa County Player of the Year honors.

Kourtney Morrison (LFO, Sr.) - The Catoosa County Pitcher of the Year went 17-10 with 122 strikeouts in 167 workman-like innings for the Red-and-White, finishing the year with a 2.72 ERA and Region 6-AAA Pitcher of the Year status. She hit .381 as a senior with nine doubles, one homer and 27 RBIs and will play at Bryan College next year.

Taylor Phillips (LFO, Jr.) - It was another huge season for the Lady Warriors’ shortstop who batted .426 with 14 doubles, two triples, five homers, 43 RBIs and 37 runs scored for the Region 6-AAA runners-up who went on to make the second round of the Class AAA state tournament.

Katie Proctor (Heritage, Jr.) - The power-hitting first baseman was a big-time run producer for the Generals as she batted .400 with eight doubles, a triple, six homers and 43 RBIs with 24 runs scored and five stolen bases.

Haley Sandridge (Ridgeland, Sr.) - Chipola College in Florida is the next stop for the second team All-State shortstop, who also garnered 6-AAAA honors by hitting .444 with 13 doubles, seven triples, three homers and driving in 24 runs, while scoring 42 more and slugging .808.

Reagan Thompson (Gordon Lee, Jr.) - The outfielder helped the Lady Trojans earn state championship No. 8 after hitting . 324 with two doubles, 17 RBIs and 20 runs scored to collect second team All-State honors.

Kaylee Womack (Ringgold, Sr.) - The valuable utility player and North Georgia University signee returned from a knee injury to hit .373 with nine doubles, two triples and a homer in her final season for the Blue-and-White.

Dream Team Second Team

Shaniyah Jones (LFO, Sr.)

Shelby Cole (Ringgold, Soph.)

Riley Nayadley (Ringgold, Fr.)

Megan Wilson (LaFayette, Soph.)

Nicky Yancy (LaFayette, Soph.)

Reagan Armour (Heritage, Jr.)

Ansley Bice (Heritage, Jr.)

Kiera Foster (Ridgeland, Soph.)

Laine Hicks (Ridgeland, Jr.)

Katie Carruth (Ridgeland, Sr.)

Madison Pettigrew (LaFayette, Soph.)

Whitney Boehm (Ridgeland, Sr.)

Erin Hughes (Ridgeland, Fr.)

Taelyn Bates (Heritage, Sr.)

Hailey Carroll (Ridgeland, Soph.)

Bailey Christol (Heritage, Fr.)

Dream Team Honorable Mention

Gordon Lee: Maddie Clark, Kirbie Bradley, Katherine Grace McElhaney

Heritage: Ashley Faulkenberry, Sarah Dye

LaFayette: Carlee Corbin, Madi Ashley, Sam Adkins, Ashton Stalling

LFO: Chelsey Lindsay, Karson Bradford, Haley Stahl, Morgan Ritchey

Ridgeland: Grayson James

Ringgold: Gracie Morrison, Bailey Farrow, Gillian Little, Kaylee Phillips

The Catoosa/Walker County Softball Dream Team is selected by Sports Editor Scott Herpst based on performances from the most recent season. Photo and text by Scott Herpst.