Cornick becomes second DII athlete to receive award
Softball’s Kendall Cornick was named NCAA Woman of the Year in November for her outstanding play and team-centered mindset. She’s the second DII woman ever to win the award, which considers all women athletes in all divisions.
“It’s not just because she’s an athlete, it’s because of her success on the field, her success in the classroom, her leadership and what she does in the community,” softball coach Gretta Melsted said. “To find all of those traits and to be performing at a high level in all of those areas is just outstanding.”
Now a medical student in Iowa, Cornick is passionate about education and advocacy about medical disparities. She’s not playing any softball, but she maintains an active lifestyle and has gotten into climbing — because Cornick is a sports-girl to her core.
“She’s an amazing athlete, she’s so intelligent, but she’s also genuinely a good person,” Augustana teammate Abbie Lund said.
She’s played what seems like every sport under the sun, having tried basketball, soccer, dance and hockey. Coming in a close second to softball was running track and field and cross country, which she did at a college in Iowa before a hip injury forced her to reconsider the long distances.
Over all those sports, she said softball came out on top because she gets to be outside in the sunshine and enjoys getting dirty on the diamond. When she played as a kid, she loved sliding into home and stealing bases, which she did successfully as a collegiate player, ranking second nationally with 34 steals her senior year.
She started out in her hometown, Mason City, Iowa, playing T-ball and baseball with the boys at about 4 years old. From her earliest time batting, she remembers her dad forcing her to swing lefty — despite her right handedness — to improve her future in the sport.
“I’m not left-handed in a lot of other things, but in softball I’ve always been a natural lefty just because of my dad,” Cornick said.
By fourth grade, the young “lefty” dreamed of becoming a pitcher. She tried out her pitching skills on one of the two teams she played for. She practiced for hours in the backyard, again with her dad helping her. But despite her best efforts, the ball seemed to go everywhere, except for inside the strike zone.
But even with her hopes to pitch crushed, she continued to improve her skills in the sport she loved.
Softball consumed all the summers of her high school career.
The schedule was so intense, she considered quitting the team at one point to be able to spend time on other activities she loved, like babysitting. Still, she kept going with the sport.
She transferred from the college she ran track for to finish her associate’s degree at North Iowa Area Community College before deciding to play softball for Augustana. At the Iowa school, she was pulled in by a group of friends to join their team in January.
“They were like ‘just come on, come out and play,’” Cornick said. “I was like ‘this is weird, like okay, I haven’t touched a softball in seven months, but I’ll try it.”
Cornick said that she hadn’t heard of Augustana before her and Lexy Pederson (‘20) were recruited by coach Melsted.
While Pederson joined the AU team in 2017, Cornick took her time to consider whether the move to South Dakota would be the right decision for her.
“She’s a top-notch student,” Melsted said. “She’s a top-notch athlete. She’s a top-notch person.”
She visited campus to solidify her choice. Cornick said she was driven around in a golf cart to accommodate her casted injury, and that compassion and personal care made Augustana appealing for both her academics and her sport. In a Froiland classroom with the coach, Cornick’s mom couldn’t stop asking about all the academic benefits, even while the recruitment was clearly softball-centered.
“We talk about that a lot, where academics will take us a lot farther in life than a sport will,” Cornick said.
Cornick said she was a little intimidated at her first couple practices and weightlifting sessions. After watching returner teammates max out on deadlift to the banging of heavy metal and continual screaming, she wondered, “Will I be able to do that someday?”
After the first captain’s practice, she sprawled out on her dorm room floor, exhausted, asking her teammate and roommate “Is it always like this?” Her roomie just laughed and assured her that the hard work at softball will help her sleep like a rock at night. Cornick said she realized she needed to take her skills to new levels and became fixated on continual improvement.
“She’s just truly always trying to get better, no matter what she’s doing, like hitting off of the tee or warming up, doing her fundamentals before practice,” Lund said. “She really sees the importance of everything. The warm-up, the tee work, front toss everything leading up to the game. Everything’s really important to her and she pays attention to detail.”
A science girl at heart, Cornick especially appreciated learning the science behind swings and the data related to softball. And while the analytical element is a growing part of softball everywhere, she said it only gets players so far.
Cornick remembers the bond their team created during the 2019 season – which, of course, culminated in a national championship.
“Things just clicked,” Cornick said. “We were all working hard, and we knew it would take all of us.”
Cornick said selflessness became a key part of their team culture.
“Kendall was a big part of that, both for the culture because she was so humble, and she pays such attention to detail, and she works so hard for success,” Lund said.
In the national championship game, Cornick scored the final run of the game in the sixth inning. To put the Vikings up by two. After the last out of the game, the whole team dogpiled on the field — their favorite form of celebration.
“She grew athletically, she grew academically, and she grew as a person every single year,” Melsted said.
With COVID-19 concerns affecting athletes last fall, Cornick made the decision to practice individually. She said she missed having teammates screaming in her face during weightlifting, and she was all the more appreciative to return to team practices in the spring.
So, Cornick put her energy for her 2021 senior season into the team, who called her “Grandma Kenny” for her age. Apparently unfamiliar with TikTok, Cornick was forced to learn one trending dance from her team. Cornick would perform the dance in the team huddle before games.
To ease the nerves of younger players before games, Cornick started making cheesy, inspirational TikToks for them. The country song “I Hope You Dance” played in the background as players shared a little dance or inspirational message.
In her final season, she led the NSIC with 78 hits and at one point caried a 24-game hitting streak. Her historic senior season won her the NSIC Kelley Scholar Athlete of the Year, NSIC Player of the Year and, now, NCAA Woman of the Year.
“It’s a combination of natural athletic ability, and it’s a combination of a very strong and driving work ethic,” Melsted said. “And that’s why she had the success she did on the field.”