Karlie Keeney’s career as one of the most successful Lady Trojans softball players ended in a 2-1 loss to Lyon County in the semi-finals of the Region 2 tournament, but by then she already had her eye on the next stage of her career, pitching for the Liberty University Flames, an up and coming NCAA Division I softball program based in Lynchburg, Virginia. Then COVID-19 happened.
Keeney opened her college career against the No. 15 ranked Kentucky Wildcats at the NFCA Division I Leadoff Classic in Clearwater, Florida on February 7, 2020. Although the result was a 6-2 loss, that was not a bad result from an untested college freshman against one of the top teams in the nation.
“There is definitely a big difference in talent level from high school to college,” Keeney recalled. “But I think my last two summers of travel softball and playing the best competition in the nation really helped me adjust and know what to expect.”
Keeney would go onto record a 5-5 record, including a win over number 24 ranked Ole Miss. No Liberty freshman had claimed victory over a top 25 team since 2006.
On February 28, 2020, Keeney claimed her fifth victory of the season in the Flames’ first home game, retiring the first 12 batters of the contest, going on to defeat Hofstra 6-1.
One game later the season came to a screeching halt because of COVID-19. Keeney ended the year at 5-5, with 147 innings pitched and 45 strikeouts.
Although what she had hoped would be a break out freshman year was cut short, all wasn’t lost. Like many other college athletes, Keeney learned that because of season being cut short due to the pandemic, she would be granted a fifth year of eligibility so that she could get in four full seasons of softball.
After a COVID-19 extended off season, she and the Flames returned to action in February. Keeney drew the starting spot against University of Pittsburgh on March 8 in their season opener.
By the time Keeney walked into the circle to start The Spring Games in Leesburg, Florida, 341 days had passed since the Liberty Flames’ last game. The break didn’t slow the Webster County native down as she retired the first nine batters she faced, going on to claim the 10-4 win.
Although softball was back in action after nearly a year, off the field things had changed. Players and staff had to deal with strict NCAA and college imposed restrictions.
“The hardest part about playing college softball during the pandemic was having to be in a ‘bubble’,” Keeney said. “We were not allowed to leave the hotel during road trips for anything other than practice or games, and we were not able to see family, which was very hard.”
Despite the restrictions, Keeney shined during her second freshman season, accumulating a 17-5 record, including five shutouts. On May 5 she was named ASUN Pitcher of the Week after going 3-0 with a 0.38 ERA, one shutout, one save, nine strikeouts, four walks and a .197 opponents batting average. That effort helped her team secure the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament.
Liberty defeated Lipscomb 2-1 in the opening round of the ASUN Championship series, earning themselves a number 25 ranking in the USA Today coaches’ poll. It was the program’s first time breaking into the top 25.
The Flames went on to knock off Jacksonville and Kennesaw State to claim the ASUN Championship, punching their ticket to the NCAA Regional tournament. The Lady Flames entered the Regional as one of seven NCAA Division I teams to win 40 or more games in each of the last four full seasons (2017-19, 2021).
Keeney and her teammates then claimed victories over James Madison University and Eastern Kentucky to advance to the NCAA Regional semi-finals, where they would face the number 9 ranked Tennessee Volunteers.
For Keeney, this would be one of the biggest games of her career so far, but for her, it was just business as usual.
“Nothing really different was going on in my head against Tennessee,” she said. “Regardless of who we were playing, I just wanted to give it my best and control what I could control. My goal was to limit their runs and give my team a chance to score and keep our season alive.”
Keeney gave up just four runs on six hits, walking three and striking out one through five innings, with her flames eliminating the Vols from the post season with a score of 6-4. It was just the fourth NCAA Regional tournament win in school history. It was the team’s third win over a Top 25 team this season and 14th nationally-ranked win in program history.
Liberty’s post season dreams, however, came to an end in their next game, a rematch against James Madison, now ranked as the number 22 team in the nation.
Liberty redshirt junior outfielder Emily Sweat, freshman shortstop Savannah Channell and Keeney were selected to the ASUN all-conference second team. Keeney and Channell were both voted to the All-Freshman Team.
Now Keeney can focus her attention on next season.
“My goals for next season are to further develop a few of my pitches and to do whatever is asked of me in order to get better and back to Regionals and this time, beyond,” she stated.
But no matter how far she goes, Karlie Keeney will always treasure her roots here in Webster County.
“I want to thank WCHS fans as well as my former teammates for following me and for all of their support, it means a lot to me. I hope I always make you proud.”
After knocking Liberty University out of the post season, James Madison University advanced all the way to the NCAA Women’s World Series, held in Oklahoma City. They were eliminated on Monday by the University of Oklahoma.
Contact Matt Hughes at email@example.com or 270-667-2069