Mackenzie Franks' path to the top started when she was still attending Edward Town Middle School. Unlike most seventh grade athletes, Franks was competing with high schoolers on Niagara Wheatfield's varsity softball roster. She would not only be a contributor on the team, she helped the Falcons make an impact — they would end the 2014 season as Niagara Frontier League champions.
The Niagara Gazette's 2019 Softball Player of the Year was able to do something that most people cannot say they were able to in their high school athletic careers: end it just the way it started. Franks and the Falcons not only won their first league title since '14 this year, but they also made a second consecutive run to the Section VI Class A-1 championship.
Franks was very surprised by the honor of being named Player of the Year and had the pleasure of being around friends and family when she found out.
"I was super excited when I found out. Actually, it was at my grad party, my coaches came and they told me about it," Franks said. "It was so rewarding to hear after six years of playing, this happens after my senior year."
It's been a long road as Franks came up the ranks from seventh grader to Niagara Frontier League Player of the Year, but she shared some great perspective on being able to bookend her career with two league titles.
"I was so excited to start my career and end it the same way, because being a seventh grader is hard to walk on the team and adjust to all of that," Franks said. "To do it as a senior again and see the growth and development and the change that I went (through) ... it was just really rewarding to see my hard work that paid off."
The spring was a great season on the field for Franks, who posted a .390 batting average, .944 fielding percentage and three home runs on the year. But it was her leadership qualities that really stood out beyond any of her numbers on the field.
Head coach Jim Proefrock, along with his assistant coach and wife, Melanie, first gave Franks the opportunity to show off her skills as a middle schooler back in '14. The Falcons' head man felt that the decision to move her to the varsity team at such a young age was a no-brainer.
"It was pretty awesome to see her (as a seventh grader). That's the first time I've ever had someone play six years of varsity softball at that level on a competitive team," Proefrock said.
"She started every single game, unless she was injured. She started at first base for us in seventh grade and you've got two seniors at shortstop and third base throwing to her at first base, so there's a considerable age difference. ... She was so solid at first base and then once we lost the third baseman, she transitioned in eighth grade over to her third base and then even went and played shortstop, because she can do it all. She was a great athlete, a fierce competitor and she's very headstrong to play a varsity sport (from) seventh grade all the way through."
Proefrock also talked about the mental side of things that stood out for Franks, considering how pressurized situations can be in varsity softball for any player, regardless of how old they may be.
"I think the thing you worry about sometimes is the mental aspect and she proved throughout her entire career that she can handle it and rose to every single occasion," he said.
Franks continued to up her game and grow as a player over the years. There was one key factor that she highlighted as to what allowed her to blossom so much on the field.
"Definitely confidence. That's probably the biggest thing that I got throughout the years, " Franks said. " ... It's a lot different of a game when you're very confident on the field. It feels more natural. ... The game just becomes more fun and that kind of thing. So as a seventh grader, it was definitely a little nerve racking every time you'd be out there but as a senior it just become more of 'you're the leader now and you've gotta step up and teach these girls how to be confident, too.'"
Alongside Franks were Mackenzie Quider and Madison Evarts, helping guide the Falcons to sectional title games in each of the past two seasons. The fellow first team All-NFL picks also wrapped up long varsity careers this year — Evarts was also called up to varsity in seventh grade and Quider moved up as a freshman. The three team captains were able to build a unique chemistry together, which helped getting them so far their final season.
"Being able to play with her since seventh grade really made us have a great bond and I could always count on her to pick me up and the rest of the team up when needed," Evarts said via text message this past week.
"When something needed to be done she could always do it and we knew that. Everyone looked up to her. She tried to make the most of every game by pushing everyone when they needed to be pushed. She played for the team and our coaches and not for herself and (I'm) glad I got to be by her side the whole time."
Franks shared the same sentiment and spoke on the experiences NW's senior leaders had together in their tenure.
"We were captains our junior year together, too, and that was really fun," Franks said. "To do it again as seniors and kind of go out the way we did it was super cool. I think one of our first games we had (as captains) the three of us all hit home runs that game and it was super awesome to see like all of us captains were doing that together."
Heaping praise on the Proefrock coaching tandem, Franks wanted to acknowledge them for believing in her at such a young age. She said that she would "definitely be a much different player if that didn't happen to me in seventh grade." She also gave kudos to her travel softball coach, Joel Patterson, for helping bring her skills to new heights. Patterson is currently an assistant coach in Niagara University's softball program.
With her high school softball career behind her, Franks initially planned to attend Louisiana State University in the fall, with the intention to join the Tigers as a walk-on. Instead, she will be attending the University of Southern California, where she will be in the Reserve Officer Training Corps and will just stick to the books due to the fact that USC does not have a Division I softball team. Softball may not be her main focus anymore, but Franks was able to at least give some thought as to what her varsity career means to her.
"It was a tough choice to give up playing in college," Franks said, before she talked about joining the school's club team and maybe coaching once she's out of school.
"I guess just my legacy is never giving up and always giving 100% on the field and off the field. ... I put my heart and soul into my training and getting better as a player. And that's why I made the team in seventh grade, (it) was just my hard work and my training and all that kind of stuff."
Proefrock said Franks' potentially final season was a great one.
"It was a great way for her to end her career and start her career. You bookend it with championships ... she had a stellar year this year. She was a leader and I just thought she never wavered, she never changed and she was a great person and teammate and captain to have on this team. And all the awards that she got this year, I think just show the culmination of her entire career."
For more from sports reporter Khari Demos, follow him on Twitter @riri_demos.