Russ Knocks Records and Cancer Out of the Park

Apr 18 2011 in Athletics, emYOU! by Amanda Slater

by Jason Idalski

Benching a star player is a dicey proposition. A coach does it to send a message, but hopes the player doesn’t pout or sulk or start to dislike the coach, ruining team chemistry in the process.

McKenna Russ of Eastern Michigan’s softball team responded to her benching better than anybody could have dreamed.

Early in the softball team’s season, Russ missed five games to be with her family after her grandfather‘s death. A few games after returning, in the last game of a series against Austin Peay, she was benched.

“We sat her because we were actually getting frustrated with her bat,” assistant coach Eric Oakley said, citing Russ’ inability to make adjustments. “She’s obviously bounced back.”

Russ, a junior from North Canton, Ohio, was motivated by not playing.

“Next game, I really had the fire in me to prove them wrong, that I didn’t want to sit the bench again,” she said. “So I think I did a pretty good job showing that I deserve to be out there and not on the bench.”

You could say that. Russ went 15-for-16 at the plate in the four games afterward, writing her name in the NCAA record book in the process. After going 9-for-9 in a doubleheader against Detroit-Mercy (including three home runs), Russ got hits in her first two at-bats of a doubleheader against Northern Illinois. After flying out to left, she singled to go 3-for-4 in that game and went 2-for-2 in the nightcap.

The 11 consecutive put her at third in Division I history, behind Boston University’s April Setterlund (13 in a row in March and April of 2010) and Kentucky’s Brooke Marnitz (12 in a row in 2006 and 2007). Florida’s Lindsey Cameron (2005) is the only other D-I player to get 11 hits in a row.

“I didn’t even know there were records for things like that,” Russ said. She had no clue of what she’d done until Oakley told her the day after.

“The way she was hitting the ball against Detroit, I never thought it would end,” Oakley said of the streak. “Every time she stepped up to the plate, she just looked like she was going to get a hit.

“She’s a special talent. She’s really a great player and she got the message real quick. She knew she had adjustments to make, and she obviously made them.”

Russ is familiar with knocking softballs out of the park, but it’s not the only thing she does. She also started the softball team’s yearly “Knock Cancer Out of the Park” game. This year’s game is May 6 against Kent State.

Russ’ uncle died during her freshman year from lung cancer, and, seeing all the breast cancer promotions going on, she asked if the team could do something to bring attention to all cancers. The event, which features pink uniforms and bats, giveaways, and a postgame home-run derby, has grown into more than Russ ever dreamed. All proceeds go to the American Cancer Society.

“It’s a really fun time,” Russ said after a doubleheader split of Oakland which gave the Eagles their 20th win of the year against eight losses. “We enjoy doing it, we enjoy doing the home-run derby and all that stuff.”

She said she hopes the team continues it after she graduates and she can watch it as an alumna. But now she’s got more immediate concerns, such as helping the team qualify for its first Mid-American Conference tournament (unlike basketball, only eight of the 12 conference teams qualify) in her career. Of course, after qualifying, winning it is the team’s main goal.

“Our team, it’s amazing. We have such great chemistry, and we’re all just hitting the ball so well,” Russ said. “It’s a 100 percent team effort, and I’m just glad that I can contribute in a positive way.”

In addition to the team’s offensive balance, Oakley said EMU has a pitching staff instead of one or two good pitchers. All four pitchers have recorded at least one win and there’s the trust that if one struggles, a teammate can come in from the bullpen and do well.

“Do I think we have a team that can win the regular season?” Oakley said. “Yeah, I do.”

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