She was born into a sports-minded family, in a time when opportunities for girls and women to excel on those fields and in those arenas are exploding.
Still, Leilani Valencia was probably far ahead of her peers in first grade, curled up on the coach, transfixed on the television, unable to look away from the NCAA softball tournament.
Watching the similarly named Keilani Ricketts throw left-handed darts for the University of Oklahoma, the perpetually smiling child whom family and friends know simply as Nani claimed that dream as her own.
“Oh my goodness, I've been waiting for this day since I was six years old,” Valencia said Saturday afternoon after signing her national letter of intent to play Division I softball at Western Kentucky University. “I played a lot of sports. Basketball, soccer. I even did ballerina, I did everything. Nothing ever felt like it was really me besides softball, so I always knew that's what I wanted to do.”
If the percentage of athletes who earn the privilege to play college sports is tiny, the probability of achieving that goal on the same college team as an older sibling and two former high school teammates is infinitesimal.
Yet that will be the reality for Valencia, a senior at Great Crossing High School. When she arrives in Bowling Green, she'll be greeted by two familiar faces. Her older sister, Princess Valencia, and a longtime friend of the family, Kennedy Sullivan, also play for WKU,
Together, the trio won KHSAA state championships at Scott County High School in 2016 and 2018. Nani Valencia was a precocious, seventh-grade tag-along for the first and a starting corner infielder as a freshman for the senior-laden encore.
“It was definitely a cool experience getting to play with Princess on the team, even though we picked on each other, and she picked on me a lot. I'm excited to be able to do that again for a year at Western. You don't ever get a opportunity like that,” Valencia said. “She was definitely a big factor why I decided on Western, let alone how awesome the coaches are, the program and everything.”
Jeff Portwood, Valencia's coach at both schools, confirmed those tales of taunting and treachery. But he added that having the courage to make that jump and challenge herself spoke to Valencia's character and the seriousness of her commitment.
“A lot of players are reluctant at that level, at that age, to come out and play with kids that are older than them,” Portwood said. “She was playing with kids that were older than her, at a talent level that was very high, and she never backed down. Every day she would come in and she would compete. By the time she was a freshman, she was in the starting lineup on a state championship team, so that's pretty impressive on her part.”
Valencia was one of the few remaining players with varsity experience to pick up the pieces of Scott County's dynasty in 2019.
In addition to assuming a greater leadership role and a key spot in the heart of the order, Valencia unselfishly returned to the pitching circle for the first time since middle school to fill a team need. The Cardinals won yet another 42nd District championship.
“Great attitude, role model, honest, dedicated and loyal. That sums it up as a player for Nani,” Portwood said. “She plays multiple positions and never complains, never asks why. She knows it's for the betterment of the team, and she will compete at the highest level to get what we need.
“Most importantly to me is how she is as a person. She's genuine. She's loyal. She's one of the nicest and friendliest people off the field. She's a little bit of a competitor on the field. She's not always that nice.”
Part of this disposition is Valencia's propensity to stay positive, no matter what is going on around her.
“She always leads by example. There's times that all of us have bad days. You can walk in the field house, no matter what day Nani is having, she's always got a smile on her face, which is very important when you're coaching kids,” Portwood said. “That's what you need from a leader as a junior and a senior to reflect on the younger kids so they will follow in that path as well.”
That happy-go-lucky appoach was challenged last spring, when Valencia lost her entire junior season — along with every other player in the state — due to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
It was to be Great Crossing's debut as a program, with lofty expectations due to those connections to the other school's title-winning tradition.
What's more, junior year is typically the one where top-level offers are fast and furious. Besides that lost opportunity to impress scouts, Class of 2021 players knew that the NCAA's decision to grant veteran players a free year of eligibility would have a domino effect down the road.
“The whole recruiting process is tears, everything,” Valencia said. “It's very nerve-racking. Especially because of corona, you don't know what's going to happen, so for a long time I was kind of scared. But I knew whatever happened was going to happen for a reason, and I'm just glad to be going to Western.”
When players and coaches alike were going through dark days in the spring, Portwood said he would often see text messages, unsolicited, from Valencia: “Hey, Coach, just wanted to see how your day was.”
That steady-as-she-goes approach carries over to the classroom, where Valencia, daughter of Ruben and Melissa, maintains a grade point average just under 4.0
“When it comes to grade reports on Friday, I skip over Nani's name. I don't have to worry about Nani. If there is something going on, she always reaches out to me. I don't have to reach out to her,” Portwood said. “If a reference for a job was to ever call me, she would be the highest recommendation. Her attitude is what we look for not only in sports but life in general.”
In a time when college athletes and coaches alike often move around like pieces on a chessboard, that consistency and loyalty make everyone. Valencia included, believe she has made a great choice. She will study to become a nurse practitioner.
“When I was still just deciding where I want to go — Do I want to stay close? Do I want to go far? — there were a few other schools,” she said. “But Western was always in my top two, top three, and it ended up being the one.”
Just the way that little girl, one who was barely taller than the bat, drew it up.
Kal Oakes can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.