Softball: Father-daughter duo of Matt, Alexi Bonenfant eyeing state tourney berth in final season together at Gateway

From left to right: Gateway AD Matt Bonenfant, Jennifer Bonenfant, Ava Auclair, Gateway senior Alexi Bonenfant, Alex Auclair and Brett Bonenfant stand together during Alexi’s soccer senior night last fall.

From left to right: Gateway AD Matt Bonenfant, Jennifer Bonenfant, Ava Auclair, Gateway senior Alexi Bonenfant, Alex Auclair and Brett Bonenfant stand together during Alexi’s soccer senior night last fall. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

By CONNOR PIGNATELLO

Staff Writer

Published: 05-27-2024 11:00 AM

Almost every day, Matt and Alexi Bonenfant drive to school together. Matt is the athletic director and softball coach at Gateway Regional, and Alexi is his daughter and senior captain of the softball team.

On their way to Huntington, they’ll listen to music, run through their days and talk about softball (Alexi’s doing).

As spring turns to summer and the school year comes to a close, the Bonenfants are savoring those last few drives to and from school. After four years together as a father-daughter duo on the softball diamond, soccer field and basketball court, Alexi is graduating and heading off to Smith College. 

“It’s something that I know not many people get to experience,” Matt said. “To see that success for their own children and to be a part of it.”

The Bonenfants hope to have (at least) one more game together – the Gators were ranked 27th in the most recent MIAA power rankings, and the top 32 teams qualify for the MIAA Division 5 state tournament. Brackets will be released on Wednesday.

Matt played baseball and soccer as a kid and wanted to pursue a career in athletics. He started out as a YMCA sports director, coaching third and fourth graders in youth basketball, and got his first Western Mass. coaching job in 2002 with Longmeadow’s JV softball team. He’s coached at least two – if not three – sports every year since then. This is his 10th season at the helm of Gateway softball.

Alexi grew up trying to involve herself in any activity she could. She had a tiny plastic tee she’d often hit off at home, and grew up with several older siblings who were involved in athletics at Gateway. Her brother Brett ran cross country, wrestled and played baseball, her stepbrother Alex Auclair skied and played soccer, and her step sister Ava Auclair played soccer and softball.

“Sports were very much in the household,” Alexi said. “Lots of going out and kicking a soccer ball for fun. It was always just really ingrained.”

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As she tagged along to Matt’s practices, Alexi befriended her dad’s players and her siblings’ teammates. She spent hours on the bench during basketball, soccer and softball practices. A few times, she jumped in as a ball girl.

“I was a little nosy as a kid,” Alexi said. “Like I said, I just really wanted to be out there.”

After a seventh-grade year on JV and an eighth-grade year wiped out due to COVID-19, Alexi finally got a chance to play for her dad as a freshman. She showed up to softball tryouts hopeful of making the varsity team.

She made the roster, but she wasn’t in the lineup just yet. Matt told her that as his daughter, she would have to prove “beyond a shadow of a doubt” that she was worthy to take someone else’s starting spot. Alexi immediately understood.

“I think there’s two ways you can be a coach’s kid and I was always the position of you have to prove yourself 12 times more than anyone else on that field,” Alexi said. “It really just pushed me to take a step from being on a level playing field with people to sophomore year being No. 1 on the team in on-base and batting because I really just took the challenge and started to run with it.”

After earning a starting spot midway through her freshman campaign, Alexi began that sophomore season in the No. 9 spot in the Gators’ lineup. She also earned a move from the outfield to third base. In an infield crowded with seniors, she was the lone sophomore.

She soon proved herself to be a lineup regular. Her batting had improved so much from her freshman season that Gateway’s starting pitcher came up to Matt and told him he needed to move Alexi to the leadoff spot.

Matt took his pitcher’s cue, and Alexi led the offense that year.

She took off from there, captaining the Gators her junior and senior years. She always had co-captains, and always consulted with them before coming to Matt with questions. This year, she’s captained the Gators alongside three friends. 

Across her four years, Alexi’s career bating average is north of .300 and her on-base percentage is north of .400. She’s started every game since earning that starting nod her freshman year. This season, she played shortstop and batted leadoff.

Both Matt and Alexi said this season has been bittersweet. After so many years coaching, Matt is now seeing the kids he used to bring trick-or-treating graduate high school. He’s spent time with their families at tournaments on Memorial Day, Labor Day and Columbus Day. 

Though he’s had to separate the roles of coach and dad for the past four years, his time as Alexi’s coach is coming to a close. He said seeing Alexi’s self-drive makes him excited about her future, when her days as his player are over.

“It’s tough, there’s days I can’t believe it’s coming to an end,” Matt said. “I’m hoping that what we’ve done this season has put us in a good spot to be in states and we’ll just keep going until we can’t do it anymore.”