Catcher, coach, friend: senior Kirsten Mack’s depth brings leadership to a young Missouri softball team
Pitcher Madi Norman: “She’s really done a really great job of making sure everyone’s doing what they need to do, and you definitely can’t slack off with Kirsten behind the plate.”
May. 02, 2017
“Conceal, don’t feel, don’t let them know…”
It’s the iconic line from “Let It Go,” the anthem of Disney’s hit animated film “Frozen.” It was also part of a pregame video shown at Tiger Stadium that featured several Missouri softball players taking turns singing lines from the movie, some more off-key than others.
Tough veteran senior catcher Kirsten Mack was one of the singers, laughing after each of her lines, seemingly carefree. The light-hearted singalong was in stark contrast to her on-field demeanor, but that’s just the thing: Mack has many sides.
Mack came to Missouri from Riverside, California, where she graduated fourth in her class with a 4.4 GPA. In high school, she was a powerful bat in her team’s lineup. Both her academic and athletic performance translated well into college at Mizzou.
“When you come in from high school and travel ball, you know, you have limited experiences,” head coach Ehren Earleywine said. “You have to know so many things about so many different positions and places on the field that it was overwhelming for her at first. … But now she’s to the point here in her senior year where she’s literally as knowledgeable as most of the coaches that we coach against and that we coach with. And so you have another coach out there on the field.”
Mack is one of four seniors on a very young Missouri softball team, which welcomed nine new players this year. As the team’s catcher, she has grown into a role of working with the pitchers and earning the respect of her teammates.
“You can tell that she has a lot of experience behind the plate, which is definitely what we need,” redshirt sophomore pitcher Madi Norman said. “We need someone to step up and show leadership, and she is the perfect person to really control the field and help our team to success.”
The 2017 season has been a challenging one for the Tigers. As of May 2, they were 28-23; the last time Mizzou finished a season with less than 40 wins was 2013, a year before Mack joined the team.
“We’ve arisen to the challenge well, but it’s definitely been different than the other three years that I’ve been here,” Mack said. “I think I’ve grown the most this year just in terms of trying to be more of a vocal leader and just trying to … rally the team.”
Last season, redshirt senior Sami Fagan was a key leader on the team, and Mack has stepped up to fill her place.
“If someone’s not doing what they should be doing, I’ve kind of taken that upon myself to let them know, like, ‘Hey, c’mon, let’s go, you know, we need you all in for this,’ and so that’s been different because that was kind of Sami’s role last year,” Mack said.
She acknowledged that being the one to hold teammates accountable can sometimes be taken the wrong way. One of Mack’s many sides is one of an honest leader.
“Sometimes, you know, it can be taken out of context, and people will be mad at you, but at the end of the day, we all just want to win,” Mack said. “And I think we can forget about it once we step off the field because they know that it was in their best interest.”
The new accountability approach when it comes to being a leader is apparent to the rest of the team.
“She’s really done a really great job of making sure everyone’s doing what they need to do,” Norman said. “You definitely can’t slack off with Kirsten behind the plate.”
At the plate
Mack’s leadership extends to the batter’s box as well. This season she has been one of the top’s team hitters; she has the second-best average now, batting .338 with a team-leading on-base percentage of .429. In three mid-week games against Southeastern Missouri State University and the University of Nebraska-Omaha April 18-19, she had nine RBIs, including two home runs.
Coach Earleywine offered a suggestion during the team’s series finale against Arkansas on April 9. He encouraged her to take a new approach and try lowering her hands.
“I lowered my hands, loosened up my grip and haven’t looked back, so that was all Coach E, honestly,” Mack said. “I mean, I’m the one hitting the ball, but I think the reason I’m so successful is because of that minor change that I made.”
The team lost the game 4-2, but Mack launched a two-run home run to center field.
Two days later, her offensive upswing was thrown for a loop; Mack injured herself diving for a foul ball and had to leave the game. She did not play the second game of the doubleheader against Western Illinois University but hit two home runs in her return three days later against Auburn.
“I’ve done a much better job of managing at-bats because I’m swinging at strikes because I’m trying to limit the amount of times I have to swing,” Mack said of her injury’s impact on her offensive performance. “And just shortening up, trying to have as little motion, little excess movement in my swing as possible. I mean, I think it’s been helpful.”
Behind the plate
Sophomore first baseman Rylee Pierce, who took over for Mack as catcher during her brief stint with injury, described Kirsten’s role defensively.
“The catcher is kinda always your battery,” Pierce said. “I would say her knowledge and experience really helps the whole entire atmosphere of our team because we have a very young team this year. ... To have someone like that who’s being vocal about the expectation and the standard is a big deal.”
Mack has made only 11 errors throughout her entire softball career at Mizzou. Her career fielding percentage, which is the percentage of times a player makes a play effectively, is .989. Behind the plate, her role is to guide pitchers throughout their starts. This task requires extreme knowledge of hitters, defense and each individual pitcher.
“She’s very knowledgeable of the game,” freshman pitcher Parker Conrad said after her start against Kentucky on April 22. “She’s brutally honest. She’ll let you know when the ball’s not spinning. And I personally love having that because I don’t want to be guessing. ... It’s just, like, a level of comfort, even as a freshman, to pitch to her because you just know she’s all about it.”
With Mack’s success in softball, playing professionally is a possibility.
“I’ve had several of the pro teams contact me, their owners and managers wanting to know if she’s interested in playing professionally, and they want her,” Earleywine said.
But Mack has a different plan: physical therapy school at Mizzou next year.
“I'm unsure what kind of PT I want to do, but I know I will be exposed to a ton of different settings in PT school,” Mack said. “I really enjoyed working in geriatrics in some of my observation that I previously did, so that is definitely an avenue I want to explore.”
Earleywine, known to be refreshingly honest — critical at times, like any coach is — had high praise for Mack.
“Whatever she puts her mind to or studies, she makes an A. It’s just Kirsten,” Earleywine said. “She’s just smart. And she has studied this game over the last four years to the point to where she knows it as well — as well as any player we’ve ever had.”
As the team enters its last two series before the SEC Tournament and with professional softball next year all but ruled out, Mack’s career is starting to wind down. Her leadership, complexity and dedication will not be forgotten by the team and are sure to lead to a lifetime of success.
Edited by Eli Lederman | firstname.lastname@example.org