Kelli and Kensi Stevens have a lot in common.
Both have blonde hair and are athletically gifted in multiple sports. They’ve got the same initials and attend the same school, Lake Oconee Academy. And, according to their coaches and teammates, they are both fiery competitors.
Entering this school year, however, the two sisters had lots of differences. Those differences meant that the Stevens fussed and argued with one another, like most siblings.
Kensi, a freshman, anticipated her rise to the varsity level last August. She was excited to compete alongside her older sister, Kelli, who is a senior. Kelli was excited, too, but entered the 2019-20 school year – the only one that the Stevens have together in high school – with a degree of trepidation.
“I wasn't really sure how it was gonna go, honestly,” Kelli said. “Me and Kensi have always been the siblings who fight a lot and argue. We used to clash a lot but I think after spending so much time together this year, and especially doing sports, our relationship has grown a lot. We've gotten a lot closer. It's a lot more fun than I thought it was gonna be.”
All that time spent together came via two sports: basketball and soccer.
In the fall, Kensi competed for LOA’s cross-country team. She ran to a fifth-place finish in the Class A state meet and earned an all-state selection.
Kelli played for LOA’s softball team in the meantime. She and the Lady Titans enjoyed their best season to date, after which Kelli earned an all-region selection for the third year in a row after playing at shortstop, pitcher and catcher.
Once the winter sports calendar began, the Stevens met up on the basketball court.
That’s when they began solving their sisterly disagreements.
“No one wants to listen to that,” Kensi said. “It took us a while to work through that. Once we got to the end of basketball season, we were definitely a lot better.”
From the beginning of basketball season, though, it was clear the two would be among LOA’s primary contributors.
Kelli was a longtime starter and all-region selectee. Kensi entered with a successful middle school career behind her but was still in line behind multiple veterans.
That did not last long. From early in the season, Kensi became one of LOA’s regular starters.
“Kensi’s always had a knack for basketball,” Kelli said. “She has really refined skills. She's a good ball-handler, she's a good shooter – that's what she likes to do, which really was one of our strong points of the basketball team – and for her to come in and add to that was awesome.”
Kensi totaled 91 points on the season. She hit multiple key shots in big moments along the way.
But her head coach, Kevin Furtado, said Kensi’s biggest asset was her defensive prowess. She recorded 31 steals (fourth-most on the team) and had 19 deflections.
“Kensi really gives us that defensive presence,” Furtado said. “She also hits some big shots. But we're really proud of her defense. She'll ‘D up.’ Even as a freshman, she's not afraid of anybody.”
Kelli continued performing as one of LOA’s top rebounders this past season, finishing second on the team with 193 total boards. She posted 48 deflections, 38 steals and 33 assists – one of which came on a pass to Kensi for a buzzer-beating layup.
Along the way to asserting herself in all those categories, Kelli had a few physical moments.
“We call her 'Pancake' because, when she gets on the court, she's always knocking people down,” said junior Destiny McClendon. “They're on the floor and she's always standing over top of them.”
Furtado called Kelli “relentless” but added that her biggest contribution to the team came through her upbeat personality. The elder Stevens’ teammates agreed.
“Kelli brings so much joy to the basketball team,” said junior Kala Jo Ogletree. “If we have a bad moment, she's always the one to step up and make it happy. ... She keeps us together, I think.”
Aside from their individual reputations, the Stevens made a collective mark through their competitive nature during practice and games.
There were even a few times where Furtado had the two oppose each other during a drill he calls “big sister, little sister.” Those running the drill compete until someone scores three baskets in an anything-goes, all-out battle. The goal was teaching greater physicality while prepping for LOA’s opponents.
Furtado picked the Stevens to run the drill because there wouldn’t be a personal issue if one happened to get banged up, the Stevens said. The sisters grabbed and hugged each other throughout the drill.
“They kill each other in practice,” Furtado said. “They compete really hard. They both really give tremendous effort.”
LOA’s girls basketball team went 21-7 and finished third in Region 7-A. The Lady Titans earned their first-ever playoff win in a 43-30 victory over Claxton on Feb. 14. Their season ended Feb. 19 with a 47-43 loss at Georgia Military College Prep.
Later that week, the Stevens transitioned onto the soccer field.
LOA girls soccer lost to Putnam County and Drew Charter to open the season. Afterward, the Lady Titans mounted a five-game winning streak.
Kelli scored four goals and recorded two assists. Kensi had two goals in varsity action and two in junior varsity.
“When soccer came, I don't remember us arguing at all,” Kensi said. “We knew how to treat each other. We didn't bring anything that happened at home into the sport.”
That allowed for on-field chemistry. The sisters recalled times where they ran the field together, slicing their way through LOA’s opponents. Kelli said they worked so well together that they didn’t even need to search for one another on the field – they always knew where the other was.
The Stevens’ rapport and aggression were vital to the Lady Titans, with athletic director and soccer coach Chris Ingle saying “there are no two competitors any tougher than those sisters are.”
Kelli was a soccer mainstay her first two years and, in 2019, was part of LOA’s Final Four run. She scored critical goals throughout the team’s region victories and playoff wins.
Like Furtado, Ingle said there’s more to Kelli than just her athletic attributes.
“When she's on one of your teams or she's in your club or she's leading an extra-curricular activity, she is always smiling,” Ingle said. “She's always in a good mood. And I know that she's really not, but she knows what it takes to be a leader and she knows people are going to follow her. … She has found a way to really master that skill of being the positive voice and the positive face of our school and our teams. She's just, truly, one of a kind, and she will be greatly missed in our classrooms and in our courts and on our fields because when Kelli walks in the room or walks on the field, it immediately changes the culture of the room to positive.”
Kensi frequently competed with the varsity soccer team. By LOA’s most recent match, a 7-0 win at Washington-Wilkes on March 12, she was in the starting lineup.
“It really clicked for her what a difference it makes for the team and even what a difference it makes offensively when she really gets involved in the defense,” Ingle said, noting how Kensi earned the starting job. “She can run for days, so she was a natural at that position she was playing. She really would work the whole field and help out on defense. Once she got that down, she became extremely important to our team and started creating lots of opportunities for others, which in turn helped her in the process.”
And then, soccer season was over.
Ingle told his team after the win at Washington-Wilkes that the Georgia High School Association (GHSA) recommended its members to shut down sports for two weeks to prevent the spread of COVID-19. A few weeks later, the GHSA officially canceled the remaining spring sports calendar.
The Stevens’ one year of high school sports together was gone in a flash. It nearly ended well before then.
Kensi was torn between playing soccer and playing for a travel basketball team. She weighed the decision for a while but, eventually, her older sister convinced her to play soccer. Kelli used Ingle as one of her selling points, she said.
Considering the way soccer ended, Kensi said she’s grateful she played.
“I feel like if I didn't play soccer, I definitely would have regretted it,” Kensi said. “I'm glad we made some really great memories. It's sad that it was really cut short. The only good thing about it is Kelli's my sister, so at least I get to live with her. It's not as if us hanging out is over.”
For Kelli, the coronavirus cut short her final year of high school. Normal senior activities, such as graduation, are up in the air. From a sporting standpoint, though, she never got to formally finish playing her favorite sport.
Kelli said although she understands the measures were taken to stop the spread of the coronavirus, it is still difficult accepting that high school sports are behind her. As such, she’s had dreams of herself and her teammates competing on the soccer field.
They are often distorted – in one of them, Kelli competed while wearing her prom dress – and two included Ingle kicking her off the team because she “was a changed person.” One featured a state championship game at Mercer University, something that seemed likely to happen this year in real life.
“I feel like I have so much left in me,” Kelli said. “I have so much love for soccer and that team is so much fun and I had been looking forward to it all year and now it's over, too short. I am just not ready to let it go even though I have to. So, I think about it all the time, wishing I could play one more game or 10 more minutes of a game to give me some closure. … As weird as it sounds, it's kind of refreshing. In the midst of the dream, I feel like I'm playing again.”
Kelli will attend the University of Georgia beginning this fall. She is undecided about her major, but said she could study biology, business marketing or advertising.
As for Kensi, she’ll be back at LOA, hoping that the coronavirus-induced measures have lifted so she can defend her top-five finish in cross-country before playing basketball and soccer again.
Kensi is not sure how it will feel not having Kelli with her next year, but she said she’s glad the one year they had together brought them closer.
“There will be times where we're riding in the car just talking and laughing and having a good time,” Kensi said. “Since we've tried to stop arguing during sports, it really helped us outside of school and sports.”
Basketball season ended prematurely after LOA dropped a winnable game. Then soccer was over early because of a virus.
Instead of being frustrated about the way those seasons ended, however, the Stevens choose to focus on the lasting mark this year together made on them.
“Mine and Kensi's relationship is definitely a lot stronger after this year,” Kelli said. “It had a lot greater of an impact than I ever expected it would. We're so much closer. Those memories that we made are incomparable with anything else that we've done together. That doesn't get to happen for a lot of siblings, and I think that we're really lucky to have experienced that. Even thought it was cut short, the time that we did have was awesome and I'll cherish that forever.”