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PLAYER OF THE YEAR: From swimmer to slugger

Superior High School junior Kaitlin Heinen is well known for her feats as a top-level swimmer, but this year she made an impact for the Spartan softball team at the plate. (Photos by Jed Carlson/

When Kaitlin Heinen recounts her earliest softball memory, she has to admit it was not an auspicious start.

“The first time I played catch with my dad, he hit me in the face with the ball,” Heinen said. “That’s the only thing I can remember.”

Heinen was in elementary school at the time, but she wasn’t deterred by her rocky start.

“You’d think most kids would be kind of afraid,” she said. “I just shook it off.”

Now as a junior at Superior High School, Heinen laughs about her early misadventures in softball.

She was solid for the Spartans at first base this year and led the team in most offensive categories as cleanup hitter.

Heinen finished the season batting .376 with a .455 on-base percentage and a .647 slugging percentage. Among her 32 hits were four home runs and 11 doubles. She also led the Spartans with 26 RBIs.

“Kate is a very coachable kid that wants to improve every day she steps on the field,” said Amy Zembo, SHS head coach.

This year proved to be a breakout season for Heinen, but she is already well known at SHS for her exploits in the swimming pool. The junior is a two-time state qualifier and holds about half a dozen school records.

Work ethic, says girls swimming and diving coach George Lehman, is what sets Heinen apart. She swam about 25 miles per week in practices last year, sometimes hitting the pool before and after school to get in extra laps.

On the softball field — and in the batting cage — Heinen is just as driven.

“There isn’t anyone I know that works harder than Kate,” Zembo said. “She puts in so much time outside of the regular scheduled practices, and it really shows.”

Softball is less time consuming than swimming, Heinen said, but she still puts in the hours.

The junior has been taking batting practice regularly since February. During the season, she looks for opportunities to slip in extra sessions whenever possible — often after evaluating her performance during a game.

“If I had a bad game, I make my dad go out and take BP with me,” Heinen said. “Just so I can get a couple of hard-hit balls.”

For Heinen, even a good performance can be better. She was named to the Lake Superior All-Conference first team as an infielder this season and helped Superior advance to the WIAA Division 1 sectional semifinals, but she hopes to reach greater heights next year.

“There’s good young talent coming up,” Heinen said. “And I, of course, always have expectations for myself. I’ve struggled toward the end of the season with hitting. … I need to get that together and hit for playoffs too.”

Swimming crossover?

Whether swimming or playing softball, Heinen sets high standards for herself, but the junior says she takes opposite approaches to each sport.

In the pool, speed is Heinen’s focus. She’s racing against the clock and her previous best times.

“It has to be go, go go,” she said.

That sort of furious energy can cause trouble on the softball field, so for the spring season Heinen shifts to a slower, more methodical mindset.

“One of the drills that we do, my dad likes to call it ‘The Matrix’ because you just do it super slow,” Heinen said.

Slowing down can be a challenge, Heinen said, but it’s necessary to perfect timing and technique.

Heinen also said there are a few areas where swimming and softball overlap.

“You have to be focused for both,” Heinen said. “Swimming you have to have a race plan, a strategy that you’re going for. In softball, when you’re hitting you have to know what pitch you’re looking for, know what the pitcher does.”

And in both sports, Heinen said, success comes from hard work and repetition.

“You have to put in the time; you have to do the reps,” she said.