Kansas softball senior Kasey Hamilton was at practice last week, warming up and feeling her excitement about the upcoming season grow with every throw, when there was a stoppage in the action that she didn’t expect.
As it turned out, the stoppage was for her.
The senior pitcher from nearby Washburn Rural High School in Topeka is this year’s Marlene Mawson Exemplary Woman Student-Athlete Award winner, and, on this particular day, Mawson and other representatives from KU’s athletic department were on hand to give Hamilton the news.
“It was just such an honor and a surprise,” Hamilton told R1S1 Sports on Wednesday. “It was truly such a surprise, and I was just shocked. It was so cool. I just kept saying thank you over and over again.”
“It was so cool to meet Marlene and hear her story,” Hamilton added. “Her legacy and what she’s done for women’s sports and KU women’s sports is amazing. It’s inspiring. She’s truly a trailblazer and to have an award under her name is such an honor.”
Mawson, who served as a professor and administrator at KU for 22 years also carried the responsibility of initiating an intercollegiate women’s sports program at the school. In addition to directing that program, Mawson coached softball, volleyball, women’s basketball and field hockey during her first three years at KU.
The award named after her has been given annually since the 2007-08 school year to a senior female student-athlete who is a fierce competitor in the classroom and the field of play while also playing an important role on the team and showing strong character and leadership qualities.
Hamilton is the third softball player to win it, chosen from a group of seven finalists across a variety of sports at KU — rowing’s Cameron Boyd, volleyball’s Reagan Cooper, golf’s Hanna Hawks, basketball’s Zakiyah Franklin, soccer’s Avery Smith and swim and dive’s Ellie Wehrmann.
The fact that Hamilton was announced to the public as this year’s winner on National Girl and Women In Sports Day made the award even more special, Hamilton said.
“The girls and women in sports day has always been really close to my heart,” she noted. “It’s something that I really value because I’m in a position right now that I can genuinely represent that day. I have such an amazing fan base of little girls who I know do look up to me, which is just the coolest thing. Being able to see their faces after games, even if we lose, they’re up there wanting autographs and softballs signed. They have that pure love for that game and it’s really special for all of us to see because it can take us back to why we play.”
For Hamilton, her start in sports came from an early and intense competitive drive. The youngest of three siblings, she remembers clearly how rough it got whenever she lost at anything she competed in as a child.
“I think my coaches and my teammates throughout the years, as long as I’ve been playing, always described me as someone who’s very competitive,” she said. “Even when I was little, playing card games with my family, if I lost, I would throw a fit. My family hated taking me bowling because if I lost it would be just a disaster.”
Past Marlene Mawson Award winners...
2007-08: Jamie Boyd, Women’s Basketball
2008-09: Sha’Ray Butler, Track & Field
2009-10: Lauren Bonds, Track & Field
2010-11: Karina Garlington, Volleyball
2011-12: Rebeka Stowe, Track & Field
2012-13: Maggie Hull, Softball
2013-14: Alex Jones, Softball
2014-15: Claudijah Lever, Rowing
2015-16: Yupaporn Kawinpakorn, Golf
2016-17: Tayler Soucie, Volleyball
2017-18: Madison Rigdon, Volleyball
2018-19: Grace Hagan, Soccer
2019-20: Jenny Nusbaum, Swim & Dive
2020-21: Lauren Parrish, Swim & Dive
2021-22: Kate Steward, Swim & Dive
2022-23: Holly Kersgieter, Women’s Basketball
KU softball coach Jennifer McFalls, who has huge hopes and expectations for the 2024 season — which starts Friday in Clearwater, Florida — said Hamilton is one of the most important factors in the Jayhawks becoming the type of team they want to be.
“There's no doubt that Kasey Hamilton is one of our big leaders,” McFalls said at KU softball media day. “She’s been here for three years and I knew when I recruited her three years ago that she was so competitive and she's a tremendous athlete. I think the mentality she has going into her senior year is right where it needs to be. She's in great shape, she's ready to take the ball and take the lead for this team.”
As one of KU's top pitchers, Hamilton led the Jayhawks in innings pitched and strikeouts during her first three seasons. She finished the 2023 season with 130.2 innings pitched and 96 strikeouts. As a freshman, she earned a spot on the Big 12's all-freshman squad.
Off the field, Hamilton has interned for the KU's Marketing and Fan Engagement department and is a current member of KU's Student-Athlete Advisory Committee.
After leading the KU pitching corps for the past couple of seasons, Hamilton said one of her biggest goals this offseason was to become an even better leader for the entire team.
While all signs point to her successfully stepping into that role, she said winning the Mawson award reinforced it while also reminding her of the responsibility that comes with it.
“It was really special timing,” she said. “To remind myself and encourage myself that I deserve to be in that leadership position and I have what it takes and my teammates can look up to me in that way, beyond just being a good pitcher but also an all-around student-athlete.”
Hamilton joins an impressive list of former KU athletes to win this award. One of them, super-senior basketball standout Holly Kersgieter, is still on campus, and she, too, provided Hamilton with some inspiration along the way.
“I just remember last yearm when Holly won, and I thought it was the coolest thing because she’s just a stud and I always see really cool stuff about Holly and it seemed really deserving,” Hamilton said. “I honestly didn’t think that it could even be a possibility for me this year.”
Now that it’s a reality, Hamilton said she already feels a special connection to the past winners.
“I definitely feel that sense of belonging in that group, especially because Holly is still at KU,” she said. “I do look up to her and all of her achievements and receiving this award, in a way, puts me on that same level with her and that’s so cool to me.”
The way Kersgieter sees it, there’s no “in a way” about it.
“She’s definitely someone that excels on and off the field,” Kersgieter told R1S1 Sports when asked about Hamilton. “She’s super-involved and a big part of the KU community. Every time I see her, there’s just so many things you can talk to her about because she’s so active in who she is, what she wants to do and who she wants to be.”
Because of the demands of their own teams and studies, the two have not grown super-close. But, over the years, they’ve always been mutual admirers of each other because they’re fighting for the same things.
And it’s more than wins. It’s relevance.
“Being a girl in sports has really just taught me that you play because you want to play,” Kersgieter said Wednesday. “Not for attention or to make ESPN or whatever. We’re here because we all want to be here.”
She continued: “People ask me all the time about what it is being a female student-athlete and I just wouldn’t change anything – everything that I’ve been a part of, my team, teammates, the journey, what it’s like, the difficulties; we just appreciate everything we have. I know whether there’s 10,000 people in there or 300 people in there, we’re going to go in the gym and we’re gonna play hard. And I know Kasey’s the same way.”
Thinking back to her own experience with the award one year ago, when Mawson met her on the court before a game to hand her the hardware, Kersgieter remembered feeling different about that honor than any she had ever received.
“It was probably the same circle of people who were supporting me that were congratulating me, but it was just a different mood, kind of like, ‘Don’t forget you’re an awesome person and not just good at a sport,’” she said. “That was cool. You forget most of the games you play in. You’re not going to remember all the points you scored. And I think this is just a good example of your time here at KU and how you spent it.”
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