For the first week of March, two young women athletes were recognized within Northeast Georgia to kick off International Women’s Month. Both women work to put their best foot forward within and outside of their sport, making them an inspiration to those around them.
A former UGA softball player has had many curveballs thrown her way, but has avoided striking out. Kendall Burton was born with a cleft palate, had a stroke at the age of 18 and just underwent her 24th surgery, which was actually four surgeries in one, last week. Through it all, the game of softball keeps her going, even after hanging up her cleats at the end of the 2017-18 season in Oklahoma City during the Women’s College World Series.
Burton started playing softball when she was 8 years old. It quickly became her first love and main focus.
“The second I played it was just kind of like when you know you know; it was like one of those moments, and I just never looked back,” Burton said.
When playing softball,Burton faced the challenge of being able to play while also dealing with her medical conditions. Before she turned 17, Burton already had more than 20 surgeries. This however did not stop her from playing collegiately.
“I committed to the University of Texas at San Antonio when I was 16 and I was about to turn 17,” Burton said.
“It was actually kind of an ‘oh my gosh’ moment because I had all these surgeries growing up as a kid, and so I actually didn’t think I was going to be able to play D1 because I thought all my scholarships were going to fall through,” she said.
When Burton got to UTSA and was excited to continue playing the sport she loved, things took a turn.
“My very first semester as a freshman at UTSA, I actually had a stroke,” she said.
Kendall survived an acute ischemic stroke.
“I was physically fine, but I lost all of my cognitive skills, I had lost my speech and I lost parts of my memory,” she said.
“I mean I was 18. No 18-year-old who goes to college is looking forward to learning how to communicate again, they’re trying to be excited about thriving in life and all this new stuff,” Burton said.
After the stroke, thriving in life is what Burton strived for. She worked hard to become healthy mentally and physically in order to reunite with the game she loves. By the time spring semester of her freshman year rolled around, she re-enrolled at UTSA and played for two semesters.
Those two semesters were enough for Burton to realize she wanted more than what UTSA could offer, so she transferred to Oklahoma State University.
“That was very short-lived because I actually got there and they told me I wouldn’t be able to play for them. I was too big of a risk, even though I had neurologist in San Antonio saying that I was physically, perfectly capable of playing,” she said.
The search for a new school continued.
Softball was never going to tell me ‘no’, it was only doctors and coaches that could tell me ‘no,'” Burton said.
“I had about eight universities tell me, ‘we want you on our roster but there’s no way,’ and then somehow magically, I had Oregon and University of Georgia telling me I was good to go,” Burton said.
In January 2017, Burton chose to call UGA her new home. She finished her junior and senior year of eligibility at the university.
Burton’s relationship with softball didn’t end there. She now works for a softball company called The Packaged Deal, where the company hosts clinics and she has the opportunity to speak and motivate young girls that play.
Softball had the biggest impact on Burton’s life, whether she was on or off the field, and she wants others who love the sport to realize it can impact them as well in a way that’s meaningful to their lives.
“I think that my mindset was just that I love softball so much all I want to do is play, and it was always my backbone with everything,” Burton said.
People are shocked at the way she is performing on the court as just a sophomore. Livi Blackstock attends Jefferson High School as a multi-sport athlete. However, between playing basketball and softball, she will tell you that basketball has her heart, and it shows.
“Whenever I play basketball, I feel so happy, like that’s what you want to do when you play a sport,” Blackstock said. “Once you get on the basketball court, it’s basketball time. You don’t have to worry about anything else.”
Blackstock was selected as one of seven finalists to be considered for player of the year in the Northeast Georgia region after showing what Brian Carter, the player of the year selector, considers amazing results throughout the basketball season.
“I practice around 11 hours a week. I try to practice a little each day because on the days I’m not in the gym, I don’t know what to do with myself,” Blackstock said.
The practice showed as Blackstock averaged approximately 16 points and close to five assists and rebounds per game.
“To put up those kinds of numbers is really impressive, especially as just a sophomore,” Carter said.
The player of the year was announced on March 6, and although Livi wasn’t chosen as the final candidate, the girls head basketball coach at Jefferson, Greg Brown, believes through Blackstock’s leadership skills on and off the court and her playing abilities, she is player of the year in his book.
Livi for us was just kind of the engine that made the car drive. She was our point guard and the ball was in her hands a lot this year,” Brown said.
Blackstock was the only player to return for the 2018-19 season with any varsity experience after the team lost six seniors. Brown said he depended on Blackstock to be a leader for the team. However, that’s not the only leading she did.
“She led our team in scoring and assists. There were many nights where she didn’t come out of the game just because we felt like we needed her in there,” Brown said.
“Mentally, I think she’s just good at handling everything that goes on within the game and kind of getting us into the right positions to be successful,” Brown said.
Brown acknowledges Blackstock’s success off the court as well.
“Not only is she a great player, she’s a great student. A 4.0 student who is involved in our community and just a great kid,” Brown said.
As Blackstock enters softball season, she said basketball is still on her mind. After not winning player of the year, she is ready to take on next season and continue to take everyone by storm.
“I’m just thankful I got picked as a finalist because there are a lot of great women basketball players in the state of Georgia,” Blackstock said.
Veronica Ogbe is a senior majoring in journalism.