Besides their drive to win and personal ambition to earn a college scholarship to play softball, both Kasie Kloempken and Makenzi Howard share another motivator to try their hardest.
For Kloempken and Howard, two seniors on Montesano High School’s softball team, winning a state championship last spring wasn’t just for them. It was a payback and a way to say thank you to the community.
“In this community, people give in a lot of different ways and they invest in the youth from the very beginning in sports and in school,” said Kloempken, after pondering a question about what drives her. “And I’ve definitely felt that my whole life.”
And winning is her way of saying thank you.
“I just feel a sense of pride in the Montesano community,” Kloempken said. “If this is one way to keep giving back, then I’m going to do it.”
The support, the coach/parent who coached her in grade school, the neighbor at the store who asked how she’s doing, those are the people Kloempken plays for, not just for herself.
“The checker at Thriftway asks about our next game,” Kloempken said prior to a recent practice. “And they’ll ask how I did at our last game. It’s pretty cool.”
That sense of a community caring drives her. Winning that state title was the ultimate thank you.
“Sometimes I don’t even feel like I’m playing for myself, or winning for myself,” Kloempken said. “But I’m playing for all the people who put their time in. They just do it because they love it.”
That community connection is what makes living in a small town special.
“It’s a great feeling to make the community happy,” Howard said. “You hear people say all the time ‘I know you don’t know me, but I know you because I watch your softball team. I want to see you do well again.’”
Neither Howard nor Kloempken have to worry about how to pay for college. They’ve both earned college scholarships and accepted offers. Kloempken, the Bulldogs starting catcher since her sophomore year, will play at Corbin University in Oregon next year. Howard, who started as a freshman at shortstop since her freshman year, will be headed for Wenatchee Valley College.
“It’s such a relief for them,” Bulldogs coach Pat Pace said, then added with a chuckle. “And for their coach. There’s so much stress. I’ve had players who had a lot of anxiety, a lot of stress. They just don’t know what they’re going to do the next year, so this is a good thing.”
And it’s not like either Kloempken or Howard had trouble getting accepted academically. Both are whizzes in the classroom, carrying 3.9 cumulative GPAs. Howard’s only “blemish” was an A-minus her freshman year. Kloempken had a B once and a couple of A-minuses.
These two Bullodgs are true definitions of student-athlete. Besides being aces in the classroom, they both batted well over .400 last year. This year, Howard will shift from third base to shortstop, taking over for Megan Choate, an all-leaguer who graduated. Choate is one of three seniors who started and graduated off last year’s championship team. The two other are Hannah Jensen and Madison Didion.
Howard is no stranger to shortstop. It’s a position she plays in summer league and has played since she was in grade school.
“I really try to stay away from sayng she’s filling Megan Choate’s shoes because those are big shoes to fill,” Pace said. “Makenzi is going to move over to shortstop because that’s basically where she’s played her whole life during summer ball. It’s not a spot that’s new to her.”
Taking over for Didion on the pitcher’s mound will be an unexpected surprise. Samantha Stanfield, who played in only a handful of games last year as a freshman, will be the Bulldogs starting pitcher. Pace is excited about her potential. Recently, Stanfield’s fastball was clocked at 64 miles per hour. In his 20 years as head softball coach at Montesano, Pace has had maybe one other pitcher throw faster than 60.
“I knew Sam was going to be good, but she still really surprised me with what she did in the off season to get even better from where she was last year,” Pace said. “Her overall pitching is going to surprise some people and amaze some people.”
Stanfield’s off season training included weight lifting, but it was her mechanics that she perfected. She spent a lot of time with pitching coach Lucas Wisdom, perfecting her windup.
“I’ve gone up progressively, about 2 – 3 miles per hour every year,” Stanfield said. “It’s the little things my pitching coach goes over. It’s the little mechanics and every little thing.”
With Stanfield’s strikeout fastball and with six returning starters off last year’s state championship team, expectations are high for the Bulldogs. That thrill of victory is something Howard enjoys reliving.
“It was one of the best feelings,” Howard said about winning a state title last year. “Sometimes it hits me all over again and I get jittery and happy again.”
It’s a moment the Montesano Bulldogs and an entire town hope to repeat this spring.