RCW: Who's at Short?
Senior Kansas softball player Taylor McElhaney is finally home. This statement is perhaps a little confusing, as it neither refers to her place of residence nor home plate on the softball field. Instead, home for McElhaney, affectionately called “T-Mac” by her teammates and coaches, is nestled in the 60 feet between second and third bases. A four-year defensive stalwart for Kansas, it took until McElhaney’s senior year for her to start full-time at her natural position of shortstop.
A quick look at McElhaney’s background draws a question as to why that was the case. Having grown up around the game due to her mother and older sister’s participation in softball, McElhaney spent the majority of her softball career playing almost exclusively at shortstop. Before she was even in high school, McElhaney was receiving attention from the collegiate level. As a senior at Oologah-Talala High School in Oologah, Oklahoma, McElhaney played shortstop on a state championship-winning team while earning Defensive Player of the Year for her conference and being named First-Team All-Region 3 Shortstop and Middle East All-State Shortstop.
As acclaimed of a shortstop as she was coming out of high school, very few true freshmen in the country would have been able to justifiably start over then-rising sophomore Chaley Brickey, whose impressive freshman season for Kansas warranted All-Big 12 Second Team honors.
“When we recruit, we recruit a lot of shortstops because shortstops are very athletic,” explained Kansas softball head coach Megan Smith. “T-Mac is a ridiculously-talented defensive player and was an awesome shortstop in high school. We knew we had Chaley at short and that we probably weren’t going to move her, (as) she had performed really well there.”
The KU coaching staff knew that McElhaney was too talented to keep off the field, so they moved her to the outfield, where she had the best chance of seeing playing time. Originally practicing as a left fielder, McElhaney was called up to the starting lineup on a full-time basis when an injury at center field opened up a spot for her. The freshman, who had never played outfield in her career, had to learn on the fly at game speed. Though there were certainly bumps in the road at the beginning, McElhaney was soon helping a defense that performed well enough to earn the Jayhawks an invitation to the NCAA Tournament.
Defense was not the only side of the ball where McElhaney was asked to play outside of her comfort zone. The right-handed hitter was asked to move to perform the role of left-handed slapper her freshman year. Her speed and willingness to work on her off-handed hitting were the primary reasons why the coaches viewed her as an ideal candidate to fill that role, one that is designed specifically to get a speedy runner on base. Just like her move to the outfield, McElhaney accepted the change without question and performed admirably, ranking fourth on the team with a .412 on-base percentage.
McElhaney’s ability to thrive outside of her natural habitat on the softball field, as well as her positive attitude about playing for the team instead of herself, immensely impressed the coaching staff. They knew they had a rare combination of talent and selflessness in McElhaney who could elevate both the team’s on-field success and culture. This was especially important to Smith, whose philosophy for success, called “The Jayhawk Way,” was personified by McElhaney in her first year alone. McElhaney’s sacrifice and performance on the field easily fulfilled five of The Jayhawk Way’s six core values of excellence, hard work, energy, character and family. Academics, the sixth core value, was also addressed by McElhaney, who would go on to receive multiple Academic All-Big 12 accolades throughout her Kansas career.
“That’s what makes her so special,” Smith said. “It is impossible to find a starting shortstop capable of playing shortstop at the Big 12 level who is okay with being moved to center field. It doesn’t happen. It didn’t take us long to realize what a selfless player T-Mac is and what an unbelievable teammate she is.”
Due to a vacancy at second base created by the graduation of Ashley Newman, McElhaney found herself at second base for her sophomore year. A lot closer to her home at shortstop, McElhaney still had to adjust to playing a position for the first time. Approaching her second new position in as many years with same mentality that made her successful in the outfield, that defense is mainly about chasing after hits, McElhaney quickly adapted and flourished at second base.
“It’s not that much of a difference, (although) the angle is definitely different,” McElhaney said. “There’s actually more to think about at second base because you have to cover both first and second. Having to readjust and know where to go were changes I had to make. It’s still groundballs so for the most part it’s basically the same.”
Though McElhaney’s natural talent and passion to help the team in any way that she could were major components of her success at multiple positions, the strong support she received from her teammates was invaluable.
“In the outfield I definitely looked to Alex Jones and asked her a lot of questions,” said McElhaney. “For the infield I looked to Chaley the most, but secondly I looked to Maddie Stein because I was playing right in her back pocket. It was good to bounce ideas off of them and figure out certain situations.”
It is no coincidence that McElhaney was able to glean success from the leadership and mentoring from Jones, who was the 2014 Big 12 Softball Scholar-Athlete of the Year and Marlene Mawson Exemplary Student-Athlete Award winner; Brickey, a natural-born leader and teacher who has pursued a coaching career; and Stein, the 2015 Big 12 Softball Scholar-Athlete of the Year. Learning from three teammates lauded for their leadership and mentoring abilities helped McElhaney maximize her success on the field, no matter where exactly that may have been.
At second, McElhaney formed the interior infield with shortstop Brickey. The duo was tasked with making the bulk of the plays in the infield and ensuring that any balls hit below, and occasionally above, their heads never escaped into the outfield. Though both players were extremely competitive, McElhaney never saw Brickey as someone blocking her from playing her desired position; nor did Brickey ever view McElhaney as a threat to her post at shortstop. In fact, both players’ competitiveness elevated their play to a level that was amongst the best in the nation.
“Having her at second base definitely made me a better shortstop,” said Brickey. “She challenged me to get more balls so that we could get more double plays and outs in the outfield. She and I used each other to make sure that we kept every ball in the infield. At practice we enjoyed doing defense, so the days where we didn’t have infield practice, we got upset because those were fun days to us where we challenged each other.”
Brickey and McElhaney roamed the interior together for two seasons, both collecting All-Big 12 honors each of those years and consuming any ball that crossed their paths. The pair worked seamlessly together, they talked to each other all the time but they did not need to, one always knew where the other was on the field.
“Playing with Chaley was great,” McElhaney said. “The chemistry we had was unbelievable, I just always knew where she would be without looking. It was great knowing I had somebody on the other side of the field that was as, if not more, talented than I am and that we were like a brick wall in the middle of the infield.”
Over the two seasons where Brickey and McElhaney led the defense, Kansas posted overall records of 40-15 and 31-20, accruing the program’s highest two-year winning percentage since the 1992 and 1993 seasons. Though it was a true team effort to attain such a high level of success for multiple seasons, McElhaney and Brickey combined to provide a caliber of defense that could compete with any of the nation’s elite.
“We knew that having T-Mac and Chaley in the middle was definitely the best infield in the Big 12 and, we thought, the country,” Smith proclaimed. “It’s hard to find two people who are so talented, care about the team and Kansas so much and play important positions up the middle. They did every drill in practice together, I split them up sometimes just to get them away from each other. They were so comfortable with each other and communicated very well to each other and the rest of the infield. We had that for two years and that was something really special. A big reason why we were so successful was how great they were leading our defense.”
When it came time for Brickey to graduate at the conclusion of the 2016 season, it was obvious who the next shortstop would be for Kansas.
“Back when Chaley was shortstop, (McElhaney) would play shortstop against Chaley in scrimmages when we did two teams,” explained Smith. “She was really good then, and we knew we had two phenomenal shortstops even when Chaley was here. Moving (McElhaney) to short was never an issue, we knew she could handle it and we wouldn’t skip a beat with her there. She is the most talented defensive player we’ve ever had here. With her skillset, speed and ability to read the ball off the bat, it didn’t matter where she was on the field because she could make an impact.”
McElhaney, now at her home on the field, still had some adjusting to do for her move. After two years of growing accustomed to her strong connection with Brickey, McElhaney had to learn how to play the interior with someone else. Something that eased the bumps of the transition was the presence of Brickey in the dugout, this time as a student assistant coach. Brickey, who played a season for the Pennsylvania Rebellion of the National Pro Fastpitch League the summer after she graduated, experienced what it was like to lose that chemistry.
“I didn’t know what I had until I didn’t have it,” Brickey recalled. “T-Mac is kind of experiencing that this year. I didn’t know how good we were together until I didn’t have her any more. There was no one talking to me, no one giving me a high five at second. We high-fived after every play whether we got the ball or not.”
An additional challenge for McElhaney has been the youth of her teammates. The entire right side of the defense was now freshmen, talented but raw. Seeing her roles reversed from when she was an underclassman, McElhaney channeled the teachings of her mentors to lead her younger teammates.
“(Jones, Brickey and Stein) all had a huge impact on me, they’re all different leaders,” said McElhaney. “I still text Alex and ask questions about leadership, she’s an unbelievably amazing person. Same with Maddie Stein, I bounce ideas off of her all the time. They all have different leadership styles and it’s great to use all three of theirs, try to combine them and be a leader for this team.”
Smith sees the dividends of McElhaney’s leadership paying off. Though McElhaney is not the most vocal leader, her actions on and off the field speak volumes – maybe even more than the words of most people. Her example of adjusting to new positions and sacrificing for the team is being reverberated throughout the class of 2020.
“It’s good to look at someone who came in and was so unselfish, that’s hard to find nowadays,” Smith said. “The fun thing is our freshmen now remind me a lot of T-Mac. We’ve got a lot of good freshmen who are unselfish and are ready to do whatever it takes for the team and get on the field at any position. We have two freshmen right now who are starting but aren’t playing their natural positions. They haven’t had one word of negativity about it or questioning. To me, that’s T-Mac. I think they’re already learning from T-Mac on how to handle those things.”
Now another one of the coaches, Brickey has been able to see how the qualities that made McElhaney such a fantastic teammate have also made her one of the most coachable players she’ll come across.
“She doesn’t talk all the time, but when she says something it’s super powerful,” commented Brickey. “As her teammate, when she told me something I knew it was something that I needed to do. As her coach, I know that if I tell her something I can trust her to communicate that to the rest of the team.”
As much as everyone else will talk about the selflessness, talent and passion McElhaney displayed during her four-year journey to shortstop, McElhaney herself will not say anything about it other than she did what she had to do to make the team better. In fact, her attitude about the process is why she will leave Kansas as one of the program’s greats and why the freshman right side will talk about how much McElhaney helped them in the same way that she talks about the veteran leadership she received as an underclassman. McElhaney has exemplified The Jayhawk Way as much as anybody in Smith’s tenure, and she has assured that others will follow in her footsteps by paying it forward through her leadership.
“(Moving back to shortstop) wasn’t a huge deal, I was definitely excited because it was like coming home in a sense,” she reflected. “Playing softball is great no matter what position I was in. I enjoyed every second of it.”