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OU baseball: Conor McKenna rises rapidly from below the Mendoza line to sparking Sooners' offense

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Conor McKenna

Then-junior second baseman Conor McKenna hits a homerun during the game against Texas May 17, 2019.

All Conor McKenna was looking for was a spark.

It was March 12, 2020, and the Sooners had made their way to San Luis Obispo, California, to start a four-game series with Cal Poly. Sitting on a 14-4 record and a top-10 ranking, OU was in high spirits as the start of Big 12 Conference play drew closer.

But as the team achieved success, McKenna was slumping. The then-redshirt junior was sitting on a batting average of .196, four points below the dreaded Mendoza line indicative of incompetent hitting. He was looking for a way to turn around his season as he returned to his home state, knowing his family had made the four-hour trip from his hometown of Carlsbad to watch him play.

McKenna hoped with his family in attendance, he might find that spark he was looking for.

But as McKenna became filled with optimism, the world around him began to fall apart. The night before, COVID-19 had shuttered the NBA, and with major conferences canceling their seasons, OU wondered if it would be next. Upon arrival in San Luis Obispo, the Big West Conference announced it would indefinitely suspend competition, meaning the four-game series against the Mustangs was canceled.

McKenna would not get to showcase his skills in front of his family, and the Sooners traveled back to Norman later that night. When they got back, OU athletic director Joe Castiglione gathered the team in their locker room at 1 a.m CT and shared the news the team knew was inevitable, but hoped would never come. Their season was over.

Emotions were high. But McKenna, ever the opportunist, knew he would have almost a full year to improve. He knew had to make the most of his chance. He knew he had to get to work.

“I was at the point where nobody else could really tell me what I needed to do,” said McKenna. “I knew what I needed to do.”

The NCAA was giving every player an extra year of eligibility, and McKenna took it, not wanting to leave Norman on a subpar season. He wanted to reinvent himself. From his swing, to his approach, to his fielding, he wanted to improve in every aspect. That night in the OU locker room, he challenged himself to use the lost season to become the best player he could be in the next one. 

His hard work has prevailed. McKenna went from an afterthought in 2020, to one of the Sooners’ best hitters in 2021. His .196 batting average has soared to .275, good for seventh on the team, and his 24 runs scored put him top-15 in the Big 12. He’s second on the team with five home runs and 26 RBIs and is inside the top-5 in slugging percentage, on-base plus slugging, doubles, runs scored and hits. He’s also inside the top-10 in on-base percentage.

His contributions have played a large part in the Sooners’ offensive production, as the team is second in the Big 12 in batting average at .297. OU has also scored 200 runs this season and ranks fifth in the NCAA with 283 hits, thanks in part to McKenna’s newfound power at the plate.

“He’s stuck with his plan,” head coach Skip Johnson said. “That’s what I’ve really admired about what he’s done. He knew he needed to work on some things over (the 2020 offseason) and he did it.”

McKenna has indeed stuck with his plan, and it’s paid dividends for the Sooners. A year ago, all he was looking for was a spark. Instead, he’s made fireworks.

“He’s always been a good kid”

Anyone who knows McKenna will tell you about his mentality. His consistent attitude and work ethic have always stood out, and despite his struggles in 2020, his spirits remained high. McKenna’s positive mindset has permeated through OU’s lineup, and is something teammates have come to admire about him.

“Conor has done a good job of maintaining a consistent attitude,” redshirt junior outfielder Tanner Tredaway said, “I think that’s why he’s having so much success and that’s why he’s staying consistent.”

Those characteristics have come to define McKenna, and it's something his father, Duane, instilled in him early. Like other parents of athletes, Duane always taught his son the importance of attitude and what it means to be a team player. No matter what Conor did, he always made sure it benefitted the team.

He’s carried that with him throughout his career, including his days at Palomar College in San Marcos, California. McKenna’s head coach there, Ben Adams, has known him since he was 12 years old. Adams said McKenna’s down-to-earth personality made him fun to be around at Palomar. More importantly, it helped him be more aware of his weaknesses.

“He’s always been a good kid and a good teammate,” Adams said. “He’s a real salt-of-the-earth type kid. He always did what he was supposed to.”

As his in-pandemic mentality showed, McKenna is also an opportunist who takes advantage of every chance he has. It’s why he was as confident as he was over the extended offseason. He knew he would make the most of his time. It’s also the reason he took the junior college path at Palomar, arriving there in 2017. Seeing little Division I attention out of high school, McKenna knew going to a place like Palomar would generate opportunities.

Throughout his life, all he needed was one chance. All he was looking for was a spark.

“He came here with the idea of creating options for himself,” Adams said. “Creating opportunities, creating more things than what he had at the time. I don’t think he was satisfied with the options that were presented to him and so he chose us as a way to create more for himself.”

McKenna took his shot at Palomar and caught fire. In 2017, he hit .365 with 27 RBIs. The Comets won 32 games and finished second in the Pacific Coast Athletic Conference. It was a good season for McKenna, but he got even better the next year. 

Within a few games in the 2018 season, he became the cornerstone of the team. On offense and defense, he led the way with his production. His on-base plus slugging percentage of 1.002 and slugging percentage of .559 were both team-highs, and his .402 batting average and 30 RBIs made him a force at the plate. He helped Palomar finish first in its conference with a 28-17 record.

His performances at Palomar got him the Division I attention he was looking for. Several programs were interested, including Oklahoma. McKenna’s friend, Kyle Mendenhall, had played for the Sooners from 2015-18 as a second baseman, McKenna’s position. The fellow Carlsbad native had high praise for the program and told McKenna about how great a coach Johnson was. Mendenhall’s persuasion convinced McKenna to make the trip to Norman.

Once McKenna met Johnson, he knew OU was the right place. He wasn’t sure about leaving home, as he was looking at other schools in California. But, he’s never been one to pass on a good opportunity. He enjoyed his experiences at Palomar, and learned a lot from them. But he was going to be a Sooner. He knew OU’s coaching staff was one he wanted to play for.

McKenna bet on himself, and it paid off. And after two years in Norman, he found himself in a similar situation. He was unsatisfied with his production, and he had a chance to get better.

“Over the break,” McKenna said, “I had a pretty good opportunity to change a lot of things. I knew I had to improve.”

“I was willing to do whatever I had to do”

COVID-19 created an atypical offseason, but it didn’t stop McKenna from working on his craft. He and OU assistant coach Clay Van Hook routinely communicated during the offseason. Day by day, he told Van Hook exactly what he was working on and what he was doing to improve.

Van Hook joined Johnson’s staff in July 2017, and he works on hitting and with infielders. He says McKenna is a “self-made guy” who doesn’t need much direction. McKenna was aware of his weaknesses and knew exactly how to fix them.

“I basically changed everything I knew about my swing,” McKenna said. “I made about three or four physical changes and a lot of mental ones. I was willing to do whatever I had to do to find success.”

That will to win has always been with McKenna. Often, it isn’t coaches who go to him to say what he needs to work on — it’s McKenna who goes to his coaches. That led Van Hook to give him a lot of freedom over the offseason. Whatever McKenna felt he needed to get done, Van Hook was confident he was right. That trust between coach and player is something Van Hook feels is unique between him and McKenna. He never worried about what direction McKenna was going because he knew it was always the right one.

McKenna wanted to improve his hitting more than anything. His swing. His approach. His plate discipline. He wanted to change who he was offensively. One specific skill he improved were his stance and foot strike.

McKenna worked tirelessly to have his foot hit the ground at the same spot every time he swung. That way, he would always be in the right position to perfectly connect with the ball. He also improved his plate discipline, and he can now separate balls and strikes better than he had in the past. Now, Van Hook says, he only looks for pitches he knows he can drive.

“That totally changed his approach,” Van Hook said. “He’s gotten to a spot where he can get to fastballs (and) he can react to breaking balls. He can separate balls and strikes and leverage counts. He’s a better hitter with two strikes… because he’s in a better position to hit more consistently.”

In making those changes, McKenna always found motivation in himself. He wanted nothing more than to be great. He had experienced success at Palomar, earning first-team All-Pacific Coast Athletic Conference honors. He wanted to experience that again.

“I was definitely my best motivator,” said McKenna. “Because everything was closed… I really had to rely on myself and my mental capabilities.”

McKenna never stops looking for ways to challenge himself. Adams and Van Hook both say he’s one of the most competitive players they’ve coached. It’s the one thing Adams made sure to point out to Johnson when he was recruiting McKenna. Because of that competitive spirit, he was able to effectively make the changes he wanted to make. He wanted to be that dominant player again like he was at Palomar. He just needed one match to light a fire within himself.

And just like at Palomar, all he was looking for was a spark.

“He’s been nothing short of dynamic”

After almost a year of training and improving, McKenna was eager to get back on the field. He had changed his entire style of play and entered the 2021 season with newfound confidence.

Johnson put McKenna at the No. 6 spot in the lineup for OU’s first game against Omaha, close to where he batted in 2020. In that game against the Mavericks, he went 1-for-4 with an RBI. The next game, redshirt freshman Logan Kohler took his spot at second base, forcing McKenna to watch from the dugout. 

But in the eighth inning, he got his chance. Oklahoma was up 4-3, looking to put the game away with the bases loaded. Johnson made a substitution, putting McKenna in as a pinch hitter. After stepping to the plate, he took the first pitch, a ball, from Omaha pitcher Casey Young.

McKenna was looking for his pitch to hit, but moreso, all he was looking for was a spark.

Young’s second pitch, a fastball right down the middle, was that spark. McKenna blasted it over the left field wall for a grand slam. The Sooners went up 8-3 and ultimately earned their first win of the season.

It was his first home run since the 2019 season and in one swing, he nearly matched his RBI total from the prior year. Almost a year after looking for that spark in San Luis Obispo, McKenna had found it and he ran with it.

He would hit another home run in OU’s next game against Stephen F. Austin, starting a hot streak that’s still going strong. McKenna is setting career highs in almost every category from home runs, to slugging percentage, to his .982 fielding percentage.

Entering Tuesday’s game against Oral Roberts, McKenna’s played in 27 games this season and has gotten a hit in all but seven. He’s made his way from batting sixth to holding the coveted cleanup spot.

McKenna’s especially come up big against tougher opponents. He scored two runs in OU’s 8-5 upset win over then-No. 1 Arkansas on March 16 and drove in the go-ahead run in a 3-2 win against then-No. 9 Texas on March 28. After much hard work and dedication, McKenna is finally reaping the rewards of his long offseason.

Johnson knows it, too, and continues to rely on McKenna to drive in runs. He’s playing the best baseball of his career, and Van Hook only expects it to continue, describing him as the “anchor” of OU’s lineup.

“We’re very fortunate to have an older, experienced guy like him,” Van Hook said. “He’s been nothing short of dynamic for us this year, and I’m glad to see that. The benefits are coming, and they’re going to keep coming as the season goes along.”

McKenna hopes to do exactly that, as his team aspires for Big 12 and College World Series glory. Oklahoma hasn’t won the Big 12 since 2013, and hasn’t been to the CWS since 2010.

The Sooners hope to erase those droughts, wanting to bring a national championship back to Norman for the first time since 1994. But despite all his successes this season, McKenna remains humble, and his maturity has risen with his performances.

“Being a good teammate, being a good leader, that’s what I want to be known for,” McKenna said. “To go win a national championship, that’d be the best legacy to leave behind.”

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