McKenzie McAfee: Playing for the love of the game
“I have been playing competitive baseball since I was 5 years old,” said McKenzie McAfee, the 22-year-old, 6 foot, 205-pound outfielder for the University of Sioux Falls Cougars. “Of all of the sports that I have competed in, baseball has been my true passion.”
McAfee, a former standout athlete who garnered numerous accolades for his athletic achievements for the Sabetha Bluejays during his four years, has now focused solely on baseball.
“Playing baseball at the college level is a full-time job,” McAfee said. “I have about a month long winter break, but other than that I play year round.”
McAfee, majoring in exercise science with a minor in psychology, is a redshirt junior outfielder for the University of Sioux Falls Cougars, a Division II program that is a member of the 12-school Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference.
Getting to this point in McAfee’s career has been a journey that began at a young age.
“I began to play traveling baseball at age 14 with the Capital City Bombers out of Topeka,” McAfee said. “My coach was the head baseball coach at Seaman, and it was a great experience for me. I played outfield, first base and did some pitching.”
McAfee played for American Legion Post 126 in Sabetha for one summer and the following summer played for the Kansas Crush out of Rossville. McAfee continued his stint with the Crush through the summer following his senior year in high school, at which point he signed a letter of intent to play college ball with the Allen County Community College Red Devils.
McAfee redshirted his first season with the Red Devils and then following the departure of his head coach at Allen County transferred to the University of Sioux Falls in Sioux Falls, S. D. The summer following his first college season, McAfee played summer ball with the Rossville Rattlers — a member of the Mid-Plains League, the same league in which the Sabetha Lobos compete.
“After my first season with the Cougars after transferring I headed out to Vail, Colo., and played summer ball with the Vail Vipers,” McAfee said. “It was an incredible experience. I got to live with a host family and played ball in one of the most beautiful spots on the planet.”
McAfee is now in his third full season with the Cougars. As the level of competition has grown from high school to college ball, the commitment level has followed suit.
“Baseball is now a year round job for me,” McAfee said. “You have to be totally committed to be able to compete at this level. School is my number one priority, and baseball is second. I take it very seriously and I work at it as hard as I can.”
His work ethic has not gone unnoticed.
“McKenzie, or ‘Mac’ as all his teammates refer to him, is one of the hardest working players on my team,” said Grant Heib, head coach of the Cougars baseball team. “He shows up every day, whether it is to practice or weight training, wanting to make himself a better player. He is a great teammate and fierce competitor. We have high expectations for him his last two seasons as a Cougar!”
At the college level, baseball begins in the fall.
“The fall season is a huge deal even though we don’t play any competition,” McAfee said. “You have to come in ready to compete and play at a high level. Spots on the team are won during the fall season!”
A typical fall practice day consists of weight training in the morning and a three-hour intrasquad scrimmage in the afternoon.
The Cougar roster currently stands at 58 players. To make the traveling squad for the Cougars, you have to be one of the top 25 players.
“For me to make the traveling squad was a huge deal,” McAfee said. “Everybody on this team is a great player. This is a big time program. Everyone that is here can hit, run and throw. The pitchers up here have great arms!”
McAfee pointed out that even though it requires a lot of hard work, he was not unprepared when he arrived on campus.
“I learned from an early age that if you want to succeed in athletics you have to work at it,” McAfee said.
His former high school coaches can attest to that.
“Mac was self-motivated and worked tirelessly at his craft. His strongest attribute was playing with extreme effort,” said Garrett Michael, head football coach at Sabetha High School.
Basketball coach Scott Burger agreed.
“McKenzie was one of those athletes that put many hours outside of the normal practice time to improve in whatever sport he was in,” Burger said. “Whether it was lifting weights, shooting basketballs or taking hitting practice, McKenzie was focused on being the best he could be.”
A typical day for McAfee during the early part of the spring season entails getting up at 4:30 a.m. for the 5 a.m., 2-1/2 hour practice. He then heads off to class for the rest of the morning before reporting for an hour of weight training at 1 p.m. After weight training, it is back to practice until late afternoon. After supper, McAfee does homework and then is off to bed to do it all over again the next day.
“If it is important to you, then you just get the work done to succeed,” McAfee said. “It is a long season with a lot of games during the week and every weekend. I do a lot of homework on the bus!”
Playing spring ball in South Dakota can be challenging due to the cold weather, but fortunately the Cougars have two indoor practice facilities. Avera Hospital, a local sponsor of the Cougars, allows the team to use their indoor facility during the early season. The Cougars also have access to the Sanford Fieldhouse, which is a bigger facility that allows the Cougars to engage in live hitting with pitchers and infielders.
“When the weather warms up, we will switch back to practicing during the afternoon on our field,” McAfee said. “That will be a lot better than the early morning practice. Our coach really likes that early morning practice, because he thinks it makes us mentally tougher.”
As McAfee begins his third season playing for the Cougars, he reflects upon what it means to him to be playing college baseball.
“I really, really like it up here. I would not want to be anywhere else in the world right now,” McAfee said. “I love my teammates, and I have made lifelong friendships that mean a lot to me. I have had to face some challenges along the way as well that have shaped me.”
Among the challenges that McAfee has had to face are injuries that have hampered him from performing at the level he desires.
“A week before my very first practice at USF, I broke the hamate bone in my left hand,” McAfee said. “I had to have surgery in September, and I ended up missing the entire fall season offensively. My sophomore year, I battled sporadic rotator cuff and UCL problems from fall to spring. This year during the fall season, I tore my UCL and was shut down from throwing all fall and into winter.
McAfee says his injuries are the result of the rigors of being a college athlete – nothing considered unusual.
“I broke that hamate bone from all of the swings I have taken over the years. They had to cut my hand open and take out the broken piece of bone,” he said. “The rotator cuff and UCL problems were the result of overuse of my throwing arm.”
McAfee embraces these challenges because he had been prepared for them.
“Everything that I am today I owe to my parents,” McAfee said. “The upbringing that they provided me with taught me the value of work ethic and that if you want to succeed then you have to put in the time and effort.”
“My dad never forced me to shoot extra baskets, take extra hitting, or extra lifting. He taught me to be self-motivated and left those choices up to me,” he said. “But when I said I wanted to go hit or shoot, he dropped everything and went with me. My folks taught me to step out of my comfort zone and take on new challenges so that I would grow. I am so grateful that they both taught me the value of hard work.”
McAfee has learned not only the game of baseball while attending the University of Sioux Falls, but the game of life as well.
“Playing college sports is definitely a grind and it is not easy, but if you keep working and embrace it, it will build your character and shape you into the man you become,” McAfee said.
So far in his college career, McAfee says the highlight is being a part of his current team.
“I love the closeness of this team and the bond we have and the support I get from all of the guys,” McAfee said. “I am really looking forward to this season and then my senior year next season.”
Tim Kellenberger123 Posts
Tim Kellenberger serves as Owner, Publisher and Editor-in-Chief for The Sabetha Herald since 2004. He specializes in sports reporting and column writing, as well as sports photography. Tim is a Grace University graduate with a dual degree in agricultural economics and human resource management. He lives in rural Sabetha with his wife and has four grown children and two grandchildren.