Freshman Kelly Christner’s path to collegiate softball was as frenzied as any other Division I recruit, with year-round practice, new teammates and new challenges every year.
But she always had one asset no one else did: Katie Christner.
For eight years of travel softball, Kelly took the field alongside her older sister. The pair starred for Andrew High School in Tinley Park, Ill., made the all-conference teams and continued to play together for the summer travel team New Lenox Lightning.
“(Playing with Katie) was amazing because, honestly, we play completely differently,” Kelly said. “She was always the player to keep the positive attitude and keep the energy on the entire team up, no matter how she’s playing. I was always the one more to keep to myself. We really balanced each other out.”
Friday, for the first time Kelly can recall since she was 11 or 12, the two will face off wearing different uniforms when Katie’s Wisconsin team travels to Ann Arbor for a weekend series.
“It will be nice that my whole family will be here,” Kelly said. “They’ll be able to watch both of their kids play for the first time in how long? That’ll obviously be awesome.”
Both sisters have taken on a slightly altered role in college, though. Katie has played in 32 games for the Badgers in her sophomore season, but has struggled at the plate, hitting just .187.
Kelly, who had slightly better numbers than her sister in high school and finished her senior year as a Chicago Tribune All-State second-team selection, has played in 41 games this season for No. 7 Michigan. The left-handed power hitter usually replaces senior Caitlin Blanchard at first base for defensive purposes, though, and has seen just 69 at-bats this year.
Kelly doesn’t mind pinch-hitting and filling in when the team needs her, though, citing the time spent watching the game as a learning tool and competitive edge.
“The pinch-hitting situations and coming in late, it’s almost an advantage,” Kelly said. “I get to watch the entire game, how the pitcher likes to throw, what she likes to throw in certain counts and the other batters that have seen her, they can talk to me about it.”
It’s still a marked change from high school days for both sisters, but perhaps less of a shock than playing without each other these last two years.
“(Katie) knows me better than anyone,” Kelly said. “She knows exactly how to talk to me, depending on what kind of mood I’m in. If she sees something wrong with my swing, she’ll talk to me about it. Coming in here without having that was a bit of an adjustment at first.”
For Kelly, freshman season has come with a steep learning curve, but also real progress. She can still look timid at the plate or in batting practice compared to the poise on display from sophomore standouts Sierra Lawrence and Sierra Romero, but she’s hardly alone.
Fellow freshman Megan Betsa has battled confidence issues all year in the circle, while second baseman Abby Ramirez, also a freshman, hasn’t found the same consistency at the plate that she had in high school.
Despite the struggles, all three are making big contributions to a team with hopes of returning to the Women’s College World Series.
Betsa has churned out strikeouts at an unbelievable pace, while both Ramirez and Christner have been near-perfect in the field.
For Christner particularly, the season of practice has brought out vast improvements. Now hitting .304, she has 15 RBI, or one for every five at-bats — among the top marks on the team.
Christner readily admits to having a shy personality, and it’s perhaps the easiest way to sum up her first season — as a hitter warming up to the college game.
Kelly looked to Katie often for help transitioning to the new environment for both softball and schoolwork, saying the two talk on the phone every day, but also attributed a large part of her comfort at Michigan to her roommate Ramirez.
Ramirez and Kelly played together for a year in middle school before growing apart, but met again, by chance, at a Michigan softball camp.
“I moved from Pennsylvania to Illinois when I was 11, and she was my first friend,” Kelly said. “She was my first friend there, and now we’re roommates in college, so I think that’s a pretty cool thing.”
This weekend will be a special series for Kelly, with her childhood friend and roommate just across the infield just as she has been all season, her family in the stands and her sister in the opposing dugout — but don’t think she’ll let herself be distracted with all those people watching.