by Staff Writer
by Chris Hunt
North Mecklenburg High School softball players Erin Lehnert and Kayla Lemke will graduate this month having never received all-conference selections. But that doesn’t mean their careers weren’t personally fulfilling.
In four seasons, the Viking duo combined to collect 17 varsity letters in three different sports. Their efforts often went unnoticed by postseason selection committees, but their teammates and coaches knew how important the pair was to the success of the team.
And if you ask Lehnert and Lemke, that’s all they care about.
In an era when too many high school athletes are focused on personal goals or standing out for college recruiters, Lehnert and Lemke were the unsung heroes of the Vikings’ softball and girls basketball teams for four seasons. Lemke also ran cross country during her junior year.
In basketball, Lehnert and Lemke were the players who set the screens or made the extra passes so that all-conference players Lauren Lewis (Class of 2010) and Tatum McKee (Class of 2011) could fill up the stat sheet. In softball, Lehnert and Lemke played similar less-publicized roles.
North Mecklenburg catcher Sarah Mooney is an All-American heading to play at James Madison University (Va.). Pitcher Morgan Lashley, who will play at Army, has also collected her fair share of headlines. But North Meck softball coach Paul Kikta said both Lehnert and Lemke filled critical roles for the Vikings (24-4) after eight underclassmen transferred to Hough High School and several starters graduated from last year’s two-time conference championship team.
“This season we really needed Kayla and Erin to step up,” said Kikta. “We would no way be where we are now without them.”
Lemke was the Vikings’ version of a Swiss Army knife. She played five positions this season: first base, third base, left field, right field and catcher. Since Lemke was a freshman, she was Kikta’s favorite pinch runner, using her speed to score runs for the Vikings even before becoming a full-time starter as a senior. The athletic Lemke was so versatile that she arrived at games without a clue where she would play on the diamond. And she never complained.
“We have this joke that I was ‘born ready’ to play because I wouldn’t know where I was playing until I saw the lineup card,” said Lemke. “All I could say was, ‘Oh, well. Here we go.’”
Lehnert shared the same blue-collar career as Lemke. While Lehnert isn’t the most physically gifted player, she’s blessed with mental toughness that’s made her an invaluable piece of the team. Lehnert is a player many softball coaches describe as “a grinder.” She never wastes an at-bat and wields a reliable glove at first base. She’s the kind of player from which coaches always could expect a consistent effort.
This spring, Lehnert’s play was never appreciated more. After graduations and transfers drained the Vikings’ power in the lineup, Lehnert filled the void quite nicely in the third spot of the order. With teams pitching around Mooney, forcing Kikta to move the slugger to the leadoff spot, Lehnert delivered clutch hits on more than one occasion. Her biggest of the spring might have been an RBI hit in the Vikings’ 11-1 victory over crosstown rival Hopewell in the second round of the state playoffs on May 20.
“She had the key hit to break things open against Hopewell,” said Kikta.
On the hardwood, Lehnert played the same way – tough. During her hoops career, she always filled the enforcer’s role. When the Vikings desperately needed a rebound, Lehnert got it. If the team needed a defensive stop in the post or someone to set a tough screen, Lehnert’s number was always called.
Had one never seen Lehnert play but heard about her role on the team, they might assume she was a skyscraping center. That’s far from the case. Lehnert is only 5 foot 8, meaning she held down the power forward and center positions against much larger opponents. Lemke, a combo guard who will join Roanoke (Va.) College’s Division III women’s basketball team next season, said she will certainly miss Lehnert’s tough-minded play.
“I love it when Erin sets screens for me,” said Lemke. “She sets a nasty, bruise-making screen.”
The wrong foot forward
When Lehnert and Lemke met in the sixth grade, they didn’t exactly get along with each other. As the story goes, they played on the same travel softball team. Looking back, both players admit that Lehnert was at odds with one of Lemke’s friends on the team and the two never really got a chance to know each other well.
The sixth grade, however, was a long time ago.
After a rough first impression, the pair has become the best of friends. They now laugh at the sixth-grade rivalry, which ended a year later after Lehnert begrudgingly attended Lemke’s birthday party. That’s a good thing, too, considering how much time the pair would spend together playing basketball and softball for the next six years.
“I think Kayla’s mom invited me to Kayla’s birthday,” recalled Lehnert with a smile, “and my mom made me go because Kayla’s mom was friends with my mom. They wanted us to get along.”
It’s hard to fault Lemke for not hitting it off quickly with Lehnert. Both agree Lehnert’s intentions – a direct result of her gritty plays on the field or hardwood – are often misunderstood.
Off the field, Lehnert is known as one of the most polite and grounded teenagers in the Lake Norman area. On the field, however, her relentless nature is often confused for dirty tactics. Suffice it to say that Lehnert is the type of player everyone hates to play against but loves to have on their team because she does whatever it takes to win.
“Erin comes off as a strong personality,” said Lemke. “In sports, she’s mean. She dives on the floor for a loose ball and even throws an elbow around. But off the floor, she’s nice and fun. I can trust her with anything. It’s just a different mind-set.”
Even adults sometimes confuse Lehnert’s heartfelt play for overly aggressive behavior. Take for example, the Vikings’ win over Hopewell in the state playoffs. With North Meck holding a 10-1 lead late in the game, Lehnert motored home to score the run that would end the game by the 10-run mercy rule. If she crossed the plate safely, the Vikings would advance to the next round at the expense of the Titans.
With that in mind, Lehnert slid into home with such force, she knocked Hopewell’s catcher to the ground. In real time, the collision resembled a car accident at home plate. No one was hurt, but the umpire ruled that Lehnert made flagrant contact and ejected her from the game.
North Meck scored the game-winning run in the same inning, but Lehnert’s dismissal meant she would miss the next four games, as required under N.C. High School Athletic Association rules. With the Vikings heading to Alexander Central for the regional semifinals – two games shy of the state finals – Lehnert was confronting an abrupt end to her final season of high school sports.
After the game, Lehnert sat and cried in the dugout. Lemke tried to console her, but even defeating rival Hopewell in her final game couldn’t ease the pain. Both skipped a postgame team party, preferring a low-key night at home.
“It was devastating,” said Lemke. “She was so upset. The team was excited to end Hopewell’s season, but then we thought, Erin’s season was over, too.”
The news was better three days later. The day before the semifinal round, Kikta told Lehnert that he appealed the umpire’s ejection and, after reviewing the facts, the NCHSAA rescinded the suspension. A picture of Lehnert’s play at the plate sent to the NCHSAA proved Lehnert slid and did not run over her opponent.
“I was so excited when I heard the news,” said Lehnert. “I think I did a Cabbage Patch dance when I got off the phone.”
Lehnert’s season was extended for only a little more than 24 hours. North Meck’s 2011 campaign ended with a loss to Alexander Central on May 24. But this time, Lehnert wasn’t alone crying in the dugout. This time, she shared the heartbreak of a season’s final out with her teammates – including her close friend Lemke.
And Lehnert and Lemke wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I thought we were aggressive, competitive and we strived to be our best,” said Lehnert. “I will look back 10 years from now and know I wanted to be right here where I am now.”