Jacobs softball coach Jeremy Bauer rarely shows emotion on the field. It takes a special moment or performance for Bauer to really open up a little.
Golden Eagles' senior Katie Kirker gave her coach, her teammates, her family and Jacobs fans just that Saturday at Huntley, when she 1-hit Cary-Grove to lead the Eagles to a 1-0 regional championship win.
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You have to know Katie Kirker's story to appreciate what happened on Saturday. Bauer brought her up to varsity at the end of her freshman year and she went 4-0. A 16-1 fall season followed and everyone who saw any part of that knew Kirker had a chance to be something special in the pitchers circle.
Then, in the last sophomore basketball game of the season that winter, in the final 20 seconds of the game, Kirker went down with a torn ACL. After an unsuccessful first surgery, a second surgery was performed to repair the ligament. Her sophomore and junior seasons of high school softball were lost. She returned midway through last summer and pitched her Northern Illinois Lightning 18U travel team to fourth place at the ASA Northern Nationals.
On track for a sparkling senior year, Kirker pulled a groin muscle pitching against Barrington on March 20. Try as she might, every time she attempted a comeback the new injury flared up. She pitched a little here and there, including 8 innings of shutout softball against hard-hitting Fremd. Bauer wisely chose his moments to get her some work, knowing that as well as junior McKayla Lein pitched all season, his best chance to beat Cary-Grove was with Kirker.
Saturday, in game that started at 9 a.m. and finished at 5:45 p.m. after rain, lightning and graduation delays, Kirker did just that.
"I am not an emotional coach but to see her be able to do this her senior year, to work through everything she's had to work through, if you don't feel some emotion you're dead inside," said Bauer. "To see her walk off the field after that ... you have to have some emotion."
Kirker sure did. Usually a relatively quiet and reserved person, she reveled in her accomplishment, but also her team's, taking the regional championship plaque for a ride atop a teammate's shoulders, living the dream she had four years ago when she first donned a Golden Eagles uniform.
"This means everything," beamed Kirker, who will play college softball for her longtime pitching coach Becky Stenning at Judson University. "It makes up for the last two years and it makes up for being out so much this season."
A girl of strong Christian faith, Kirker used that faith to get through the rough times. She figured she owed it to her faith to deliver Saturday.
"I just gave it my all for God," she said. "I laid it down for Him. I knew there was a reason behind everything."
None of this has been easy for Kirker and she admits there were times her faith and her resolve were tested.
"It's been the hardest thing," she said. "Before I got hurt softball was my life. I had so much potential and people put a lot of expectations on me and I expected to do great things. Not being able to fulfill the expectations was really hard. There was a point after the first surgery when I wasn't throwing all that well and I wasn't sure I'd be able to play in college and that was always my dream. But I can't imagine not playing softball. I've made so many friends, such great bonds and life lessons have come from softball."
"To her credit, she could have just said 'I'm going to play center field, I can't do this (pitch) anymore, '" said Bauer. "She didn't."
Instead, she put all the adversity of the last 30 months in the rear view mirror, put her team on her back in the biggest game of the season, and came through a champion.
Because that's what Katie Kirker is.