Between innings against Arizona State on Feb. 26, the Michigan softball Twitter account posted a video of senior centerfielder Kelly Christner gathered around her fellow outfielders, dancing to Pat Benatar’s 1983 hit, “Love is a Battlefield.”
It was the final day of an arduous five-game Mary Nutter Classic, and time had just snatched a possible win against No. 1 Florida State away from the Wolverines. A drop-dead travel rule was imposed in the middle of the eighth inning — just as Michigan had its chance to score a runner from second and avenge its eliminating loss to the Seminoles from the 2016 Women’s College World Series.
Visible frustration and disappointment would have been justified to see from the trio of outfielders before the final inning.
Yet, there was Christner, waiting for the song’s piano notes to cascade from the field’s speakers. When they did, she threw her arms up dramatically and turned around at the camera behind her, cracking up her teammates.
“I looked like an idiot,” Christner said. “But it’s just little stuff like that to try to loosen everyone up.”
But Christner hasn’t always been able to carry that relaxing sense of humor on the field.
It’s the second game of the 2016 WCWS, and Michigan is down by a run to No. 3 Oklahoma. Christner steps up to the plate with two outs and the bases loaded.
The pressure mounted — she could drive in a game-tying or go-ahead run. She takes two balls before taking a pitch down the heart of the plate and pulling another foul, evening the count at two. The fifth pitch of the at-bat is fired home and curves away from Christner, nipping the black of the plate. She never pulled the trigger, as the voice behind her screams “strike-three.” Christner’s frustration is apparent as she turns to the umpire, arguing the call with just a dejected look on her face.
Michigan would never get that game-tying run, losing its first contest in Oklahoma City before getting eliminated a day later.
This season, however, Christner has pulled the trigger on that powerful sense of humor.
It comes — just as her game does — from years of practice with her older sister, Katie, who played softball at Wisconsin from 2013 to 2016.
“Both of us like to have fun,” Katie said. “You can always see both of us dancing before games, and doing things and doing funny, weird stuff to make our teammates laugh.”
The Christner sisters grew up under the tutelage of their dad, a former college baseball player at Cornell. Their love of softball dominated their childhood, creating shared afternoons in the cage and on the diamond.
As they grew up with a love for softball, with countless teams, practices and days on the diamond between them, the logical college decision for Christner might have been Wisconsin, where she would get to play with her sister for three years. A visit to Michigan, though, persuaded her otherwise.
“The first time Kelly went to Ann Arbor, she fell in love with (Michigan) and its softball culture,” Katie said. “Even though we’re so close and she would’ve liked to have gone to school with me, visiting sealed it for her.”
Added Christner: “It would have been so much fun to have her at college with me, but I wanted to take her out of the equation and make the decision based upon every other factor. When I did that, it was Michigan all the way.”
Still, the two found playing one another in the Big Ten schedule quite difficult.
“One of the weirdest things I’ve ever gone through is seeing her on the other side,” Katie said.
Perhaps the time away from her sister drew Christner further from that enjoyment brought by those afternoons on the diamond with their father.
Though there’s no way to know for sure, one thing is certain: that bond from childhood has become vital to Christner’s senior-year resurgence. Her older sister’s perspective and words of wisdom have given her the necessary mindset to start the season so strongly, with less of an emphasis on statistics.
“My sister told me: nobody asked what her batting average was, but they ask how it made (her) into a better person,” Christner said. “So, I think all of us have tried to focus on that, working on letting (softball) make us better people.”
But in case anyone does ask Christner what better in college — partially thanks to her sister’s advice — she’ll be able to give them a damn impressive answer.
Christner and fellow seniors Megan Betsa, Abby Ramirez and Lindsay Montemarano all live together in an off-campus house — just as they have since their sophomore seasons. On the field, they have experienced two runs to the WCWS and three Big Ten championships. Off it, friendships and life-long bonds have strengthened like an aluminum bat cooling from a molding fire.
“A lot of people think we get sick of each other because we’re literally with one another 24/7,” Christner said. “But we’ve gotten to know each other so well now that we know how to handle one another in certain situations. I think that helped on the softball field and helped us come even closer together.”
The roommates have learned each other’s quirks — Christner knows “almost every song” or the story behind Ramirez’s walk-up track, “Gasolina.”
But the willingness to speak bluntly is one of the first things her teammates will concede about Christner’s personality.
“She’ll tell you how it is,” Betsa said. “She doesn’t sugarcoat things, so you don’t have to worry about that.”
As her senior year progresses and Christner continues to pick her spots to be blunt, she’s forced to reflect on her career. And having gone through a final season herself, Katie knows exactly what will become most nostalgic for her sister.
“I think she’ll miss the fun times with her teammates the most on and off the field,” she said. “The bus trips — and everything that doesn’t look too enjoyable on the surface — you realize were fun.”
Maybe her three senior housemates were the perfect catalyst to help her remember that this season, following a year in which the fun had escaped Christner entirely.
After Christner broke out to hit .393 with 21 home runs and 67 runs batted her sophomore season, the accolades — including All-American honors, a place on the All-Big Ten First Team, and a nod for NCAA all-tournament team — piled as high as expectations for the next year. And following a national runner’s up finish and a return of a plethora of key players, the pressure stacked upon Christner and the rest of the Wolverines in 2015.
But the stress of reliving a breakout season affected her, as a focus on matching statistical benchmarks backfired. Christner’s average dropped 80 points, and she hit just six home runs in her junior season.
“I think she put a lot of pressure on herself,” said Michigan coach Carol Hutchins. “You feel like you’re supposed to be hitting .400, hitting home runs, and be an All-American. And she allowed that to build into the expectations.”
Added Christner: “This past summer, I looked at my sophomore year to junior year, and I saw obvious mistakes that I made last year. So this summer, I really worked on getting back to that swing I had sophomore year.”
With her sister’s advance and swing new changes, 2017 has been a renaissance of sorts for the senior. Twenty-two games into the year, Christner is hitting .476 with four home runs and 22 runs batted in — on-pace for the team’s triple crown.
“I think it’s hard to watch anyone struggle,” Megan Betsa said. “You want to see them do well but can’t do it for them. She did a good job working through it, as you can see her performance now.”
Fast-forward to that Mary Nutter Classic last February. The Wolverines find themselves in a similar position — down in the latter innings — against an inferior team in New Mexico State. A loss could have had demoralizing effects. With runners on first and second and Michigan trailing by two runs, Christner makes a return to the plate.
But this time, she remembers the joy of playing softball — the type she felt on the empty Illinois field with her sister and dad — and she ignores the pressure.
The pitch comes toward home. Christner picks the bat off her left shoulder and takes an aggressive cut. The softball blasts through the air and clears the fence, giving the Wolverines a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.
Kelly Christner is just playing softball now — maybe more dancing in centerfield has its rewards.
“I needed to just have more fun with it,” she said. “It is just a game.”