This spring, a sportswriter who shall remain nameless whined in print about all the cold rain during Woodinville baseball games. But as Katie Pippel can attest, there’s weather… and then there’s weather.
The Woodinville native just completed her freshman season playing for the Montana Grizzlies softball team. She laughs about taking batting practice in March. She’d step into the batter’s box, take a mighty cut, and watch the ball sail deep into the gray winter sky, before clearing the fence and disappearing into a seven-foot snow bank.
“It was really rough,” Pippel said. “It starts snowing in early-to-mid November. And it doesn’t really stop snowing so we can clear our field and play games until mid-March. We had to work really hard to make it clear for our first home games at the end of March.”
But that’s not to say her year in Missoula was full of misery. Not by a long shot. It was everything she ever wanted -- and was a most unusual path.
Pippel grew up in Woodinville and played for Bellevue Christian. As the team’s pitcher, she earned 1st Team All-State honors and helped lead the club to its first-ever 1A State berth. Bellevue Christian traveled to the Tri-Cities and had a blast.
“Our high school team had never gone to State, in the sixteen years since we became a fast pitch team,” Pippel said. “We ended up getting third place which was really awesome. We were just there to have fun and make memories.”
By the time she graduated, she had athletic scholarship offers from several colleges. But she chose to attend Montana as a student. She wasn’t even sure if she would play softball anymore.
“Part of the reason I went to Montana was because of my athletic trainer in high school,” she said. “He actually graduated from the graduate athletic training program at the University of Montana. And since I injured myself a lot playing softball [in high school], I spent a lot of time in his training office doing rehab and preventative care. So I got close to his job and I found that I liked how his job worked. So I determined that that was the career path I wanted.”
Pippel arrived on campus for a tour. She loved the nearby mountains and the community atmosphere. She also decided to try out for the softball team as a walk-on.
“I basically committed to Montana before Montana committed to me,” she said.
Try-outs were an angst-ridden few days for Pippel. But she made the team. The curious part was that Montana didn’t need a pitcher, but they needed another outfielder. And so Woodinville’s Katie Pippel became an outfielder.
“I went to the University of Montana not knowing if I was on the team or not,” she said. “I was trying out for the team as a walk-on. I hadn’t played outfield in a long time. I was mountains behind the other players. I didn’t think I was going to catch up.”
But opportunity knocked on February 22, in a game at Santa Clara. A Grizzly outfielder had been struggling and Pippel was given the start. Pippel batted eighth in the line-up and played right field. Her two-run homer in the second inning paced Montana to a 5-1 win.
“I think I made a [tough] catch in that game too,” Pippel said. “So since I didn’t suck in that game, I got put into the next game. It’s how it goes -- as long as you don’t suck, you’re in!”
A few weeks later came the dog days of March. Pippen fell into a slump and was pulled from the starting lineup. But rode the pine for several weeks.
But once again, opportunity came. She returned as the starting right fielder for the Big Sky Tournament. In a game against Portland State,
Pippel blasted a three-run homer – pacing the Griz to an 11-5 win.
“I realized that I needed to be out there,” she said. “I learned that you couldn’t stop me once I was on the field.”
For the season, the Lady Grizzlies went 10-8 in the Big Sky Conference, and 25-31 overall. Pippel batted .307 with 2 home runs and 22 RBIs. She also thoroughly enjoyed life in a college town.
“It is such a huge community in Montana,” she said. “The football games, first of all. But for softball too. At the beginning of the season, we had a meet-the-team-banquet-auction thing. People who come to the dinner, we sit with them at the tables, and then we auction off stuff.
“I wrote a letter to an elderly man encouraging him to come to the games,” she said. “He ended up coming to every single home game we played this season. He can’t move his hands, and someone drives him to the field. But he came every single time. I gave him a hug every time. There is so much support for sports in Missoula.”
Pippel feels excited as she looks forward her sophomore season. But one question lingers – does she want to return to the pitcher’s circle?
“I do miss pitching, I will say that,” she said. “But I do not want to pitch at the Division I level in college softball. It would be too much pressure. And I’m having too much fun in the outfield. But if my coach ever calls upon me, I will try to do my best.”