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McKenzie Millar has caught on for Cheyenne East

May 16—CHEYENNE — It took McKenzie Millar a handful of games to find her footing in varsity softball.

The sophomore played early for Cheyenne East last spring, but it wasn't until her eighth game that her bat finally started to come around. Eventually, Millar got her batting average as high as .394 and finished her rookie campaign batting .345, with four extra-base hits and 11 RBI, to help the Thunderbirds finish as state runners-up.

That experience prepared Millar to take on a larger role this spring.

"Trista (Stehwien) got me mentally ready to step up," Millar said of the graduated three-time all-state selection. "As a catcher, I'm part of every play, so I can't let anything get me down. I learned how to shake things off and build off mistakes, instead of dwelling on them.

"I learned how to do that by watching the older girls last year. This year, Gracie (Oswald) and Aleah (Brooks) are amazing at that. They're the kinds of players I want to be when I'm their age, so I try to copy that and follow their lead."

Millar is applying those lessons as East (21-5) enters the state tournament, which starts today at the Energy Capital Sports Complex in Gillette. The T-Birds are the No. 3 seed from the East Conference and open the tournament at 2 p.m. against West No. 2 Rock Springs.

Millar is batting .449 (35-of-78), with 13 doubles, a triple, six home runs and 40 RBI. Her batting average ranks third among East's everyday players, while her RBI total is second-best. Millar's RBI and home run totals both ranked in the statewide top 10 last week.

Millar has caught fire over the T-Birds' final nine regular-season games, batting .529 (18-for-34), with eight doubles, four homers and 25 RBI. Her doubles and RBI totals are both team-highs during that stretch.

"She's been really clutch the past couple weeks," senior outfielder Gracie Oswald said. "She started the season lower in the batting order, but she's moved up to the No. 2 spot. She put her head down and worked her way up there.

"She's been doing her job with lots of RBIs and big, clutch hits. I'm excited to see how she'll do the next couple years."

East's coaches feel like they have as strong of an order 1-4 as anybody in the state. Senior Lillian Vallejo sets the table in the leadoff spot, followed by Millar, Oswald and Brooks.

"Getting the first two batters to second or third with Gracie and Aleah coming up is huge," assistant coach Michael Galicia said. "We feel like we're going to get two runs whenever (Vallejo and Millar) get on. You need to score 10 or 11 runs to beat teams like Campbell County and Thunder Basin, so that's important."

Millar has increased her batting average by learning to keep her hands from dropping so low during her swing, which was causing her to pop out frequently. She also improved her timing so the pitcher's velocity doesn't bother her as much as it used to. Now, it doesn't really matter whether the girl in the circle is bringing the heat or her fastball looks like most others' off-speed pitches.

"Slow pitchers used to get me all the time," Millar said. "Now, I've gotten pretty good at timing up all the pitchers we face."

Millar describes her defense as a work in progress because of the times she has struggled with passed balls. She has drawn on the wisdom passed down from Stehwien about having a short memory.

"Defense brings me down," she said. "I can hit bad all day and it doesn't bother me as much as a bad inning defensively does. I've let one bad inning affect the rest of the game, and I can't let that happen."

Galicia is a former catcher himself, and understands the mental and physical demands of the position as well as anyone. He has seen Millar's defensive growth.

"There's so much going on, and you have to be in charge of so many things when you're behind the dish," the coach said. "Pitchers might throw 100 pitches, but the catcher has to catch 100 of them, and there are so many more opportunities to make mistakes, and things happen.

"(Millar's) mental approach has really gotten stronger. She's more experienced and mature from having a season of high school and another competitive season under her belt."

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Jeremiah Johnke is the WyoSports editor. He can be reached at jjohnke@wyosports.net or 307-633-3137. Follow him on X at @jjohnke.