Como Park Senior High School’s softball team has been a consistent contender for the conference championship throughout most of this millennium. The Cougars’ varsity team has finished in first or second place in the St. Paul City Conference every year since 2004.
The 2017 team that represented the Cougars on the diamond did the same, finishing in second place with a 7-1 record in conference play. The only blemish was a nail-biting one-run loss to Highland on May 8.
While a win on that day would have been special, Como’s achievements and an overall record of 13-3 as the Bugle went to press, are remarkable when considering the team’s youth and lack of previous varsity experience. There is only one senior on the roster.
However, with that one senior being Kathryn Proper, an all-state pitching ace, captain and beloved teammate, coach John Fischbach had reasons for believing his young team could stay competitive this spring.
Fischbach, a teacher of 38 years in St. Paul and Como’s softball coach for 26 years, says Proper is the most complete and powerful pitcher he’s ever had. “She’s a once-in-a-lifetime pitcher for a smaller city school like ours,” Fischbach said.
“What Kathryn’s done to improve each year, her goal of pitching in college, which she’s committed to do at St. Catherine, is evidence of her hard work. She’s set high goals and reached them.”
The St. Paul Pioneer Press took notice of Proper’s statistics this season. Sportswriter Jace Frederick wrote a feature article about her in the May 10 edition of the paper. The attention is well deserved, but Proper hasn’t let it be a distraction. She is focused on her pitching, and more broadly, focused on helping her young teammates on and off the field.
“I want to help our players build their confidence as much as I can, and teaching them that the mistakes you make don’t define you as a player,” Proper said. “I’ve wanted to be a captain my whole life and now that I am, I take it seriously. I feel a lot of responsibility, but at the same time, it’s been really fun and we don’t feel a lot of pressure with our young team. We just go out and do our best.”
Team goals and leadership were the first thoughts Proper shared when asked about her goals for the season. That unselfish maturity has helped the Cougars come together and bond with their star pitcher. A road trip to Brainerd for a tournament early in the season helped establish the sisterly support and spirit of the team.
Junior Adrianna Tarver, who plays first base, shared that they played games and cards together at the hotel, along with some dancing, and that the Proper family has also hosted team dinners. “Our chemistry is so strong this year. It’s crazy. It’s the best. We have lots of laughs,” Tarver said.
Junior Alexis Barnes was selected co-captain with Proper. While Barnes says she’s not as vocal as Proper, she tries to help lead by example. Barnes also has the responsibility of catching the curveballs and fastballs that Proper propels past the batter.
“Kathryn’s always consistent. She’s always throwing it in her spots, but it does hurt some times. She throws it so fast,” Barnes said. “She’s a great captain and helps everyone out. She’s always cheering for everyone. And she’s so funny, too.
Barnes converted to catcher this season after playing in right field as a freshman and sophomore. Fischbach needed to find a replacement for Emma Hartmann who caught for Proper’s first three seasons and now studies and plays softball at Macalester College.
Fischbach has been impressed by Barnes’ performance behind the plate. Stepping up to catch for Como’s elite pitcher carries big responsibility, and the entire team agrees that Barnes has handled it beautifully.
Several other players were also asked to try new positions this season in order to fill needs left behind from the talented seniors who graduated in 2016. Every one of the 12 varsity players on this 2017 Cougars’ squad has contributed in meaningful ways.
Freshman Bailey Huepenbecker plays third base, sophomore Gianna Gabrielli is the shortstop, and sophomore Isabelle Hoppe covers second base with Tarver at first to round out the infield.
The starting outfielders are sophomore Bridget Proper in left, junior Jessica Koch in center and freshman Jade Sklar in right. Designated hitters include sophomores Adina DeGaetano and Asia Faulk. Junior Lai Chia Moua is a designated runner.
Together this diverse cast of characters has kept Como in familiar territory contending for conference crowns and being a tough tournament team. They added a trophy by winning the Concordia Academy Invitational tournament, sweeping three metro-area opponents in April.
The end of May will bring the team to the challenge of the Section 4AAA Playoffs. The Cougars traditionally make deep runs toward the finals. Fischbach, Proper and this year’s youthful team are preparing to get there again.
“We have high expectations. We don’t lower our expectations. We’re working hard, developing and having fun,” Fischbach said.
The veteran coach is not shy about setting goals. The bar is set high, but with that he preaches family. There is an emphasis on togetherness. Individuals won’t meet goals alone. “We’re a family. We all look out for each other. We support each other,” he said.
While the goal of winning what would have been the eighth conference championship in Como softball history fell out of reach with that heartbreaking loss to Highland, the strength of this Cougar team was brought to light in a different way on that day.
The tears in the players’ eyes showed the passion and pride of the Como softball program. The encouraging words and hugs demonstrated the care and support for one another. And the smiling faces at school the next day revealed resiliency and a characteristic of any successful team—excitement for another chance to play in a season they don’t want to end.
Eric Erickson is a social studies teacher at Como Park High School and a longtime coach of school and youth sports in St. Paul.