Mack Leonard, Illinois State (ISU photo)

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Father’s Memory Inspires Illinois State’s Mack Leonard

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Mack Leonard has the date of her father’s death marked on her glove. She wears a locket with his initials on the outside, his picture on the inside and “Always In My Heart” inscribed nearby.

Ken Leonard passed away during Leonard’s junior year of high school. He went into cardiac arrest at work and suffered brain damage from lack of oxygen. The former championship decathlete was only 45.

But her father’s presence never leaves Leonard when she’s on the softball field. He was the one who dug her a mound at their house and caught all her pitching workouts. He was the one who shrugged off the bruises from pitches that went astray like it was no big deal.

“He was there every game next to the dugout keeping track on GameChanger in his lawn chair with his feet up on the fence making jokes,” Leonard said. “That is how I remember him. He would come to all my games and talk to me about them on the way home. I know he is still looking down watching me play college and this summer.”

Leonard prolonged the family’s legacy by choosing to play for Illinois State. Leonard’s parents – both star athletes – met and fell in love while attending the school. Lana Davis played softball under current ISU head coach Melinda Fischer, and Ken was an ISU decathlete who won the Missouri Valley Conference title in 1991.

Leonard has developed into a second-generation multidimensional threat for the Redbirds. As a sophomore during the coronavirus-shortened 2020 season, she led the team in batting average (.443), slugging percentage (.900), runs scored (19) and doubles (10). In the circle, the righthander was 3-2 with a shutout in 12 appearances.

Leonard carried the momentum into the summer, becoming a breakout star in the Florida Gulf Coast League and helping the Myakka City RiverMocs capture the championship. She was named the Most Valuable Player after going 9-0 in the circle and batting .482 during the regular season. 

“I was really happy with how I performed. Obviously coming off the break from corona, I was not sure how I would do,” Leonard said. “It took me a few games to kick off some dirt and kick off some rust, but I got my timing back hitting and found my footing back in the circle and felt good.”

Mack Leonard was 3-2 with a shutout in 12 appearances in 2020 (Credit: Illinois State Athletics)

RiverMocs head coach Michaela Transue had never seen Leonard play until she arrived in Florida this summer. A volunteer assistant at Missouri for the past two seasons, Transue was immediately drawn to Leonard’s confident nature.

“Her whole attitude on the mound stands out. She was out there ready to beat anybody and didn’t care where you were from or what team you played for,” Transue said. “She went out there ready to pitch a seven-inning shutout every single time and looking to hit as soon as she stepped in the box. I think that is pretty rare in kids nowadays. Most of them want to do well, but they kind of get caught up in the big name or the name on the front of the jersey.”

Leonard committed to Illinois State in the eighth grade. She didn’t play on a major travel team and didn’t get as much exposure as some others during the recruiting process. 

“It was really stressful being so young and having to think about four years down the road. I am glad they changed the rule because I don’t think anyone should have to commit so young,” Leonard said, referring to the legislation passed that does not permit contact from college coaches until a player’s junior year. “I wish it was in place when I was being recruited because it is hard to have a coach watching your game and seeing them walk away if you perform poorly in the first inning. That kills your vibe for the rest of the tournament.”

But committing to Illinois State wasn’t a fallback option for Leonard. She takes pride in wearing the jersey and representing her local school.

“I think I am just meant to be here. I have my family legacy here and I know everyone. Some of my best friends are here and I have a great support system,” she said. “It makes it more special knowing our family history here. I am where I am supposed to be.”

Having showcased her ability against Power Five Conference schools during the 2020 season and against some top players in the FGCL, Leonard has been fielding questions about why she’s not at a bigger program.

“I tell them my story and they understand. But even then, they are like, ‘why aren’t you in the transfer portal?’” she said. “That is a lot more than just my decision, that is a family decision and about loyalty and leaving friends. I have thought about my potential to play, but at the same time I am happy at ISU and doing well and love my teammates.”

Leonard’s mom was her pitching coach early in her career, but they both decided it was best to leave that to others.

“My mom cared more about our relationship than being my coach. She will always be coaching me some throughout life,” Leonard said. “She still tells me to make sure I’m doing this on the rise or doing this on the drop and making sure I stay tall. But it’s more about supporting me and coming to every single game.”

Being able to play for the same college coach as your mother is something not many other players get to experience.

“Melinda knows me and my mom and knows we are very different players,” Leonard said. “Here and there, she will talk about what she remembers about my mom doing something or seeing her and my dad looking at each other during practice. I think it’s pretty cool she’s had two generations of family to coach.”

Leonard has been able to learn more about her dad’s career at ISU by talking to ISU’s head trainer and some of the track athletes. She wishes he could have seen her play at Illinois State.

After spending 12 days in the hospital following his cardiac event, he was taken off the ventilators.

“About an hour later, he died peacefully with my pastors from my church and some of his best friends, brother and dad all in the room praying over him,” Leonard said. “It was painless and peaceful. We had such a huge support system surrounding us from across the community that really helped.”

Leonard led ISU in batting average (.443), slugging percentage (.900), runs scored (19) and doubles (10) in 2020 (Credit: Illinois State Athletics)

Although Leonard’s numbers in the FGCL stood out, Transue was just as impressed by her reaction to being ejected in the championship game after a controversial call on a collision at second base.

“She was the epitome of a great teammate in that situation. She came into the dugout and was like, ‘We are good. You guys don’t need me. I will be cheering you on,’” Transue said. “She is not a kid that is typically in the dugout, but she knew that had to be her role. I think that is the definition of the ultimate competitor and what kind of person she is too.”

Leonard didn’t know what to expect when she agreed to play in the FGCL. She wanted to step out of her comfort zone, and challenge herself on many different levels. 

It was the first time she’s been away from home for so long, and she returned with a lot of hardware and memories.

“I am glad for everything I experienced down there, good or bad. There is so much I can learn from it and take away from it,” Leonard said. “It’s an opportunity I won’t ever forget and I met some lifelong friends down there.”

  • Rhiannon Potkey is a Senior Staff Writer at D1Softball. She can be reached by email at [email protected]

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