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Prep softball: Vaara's grit, mental toughness shine on the field

Maintaining her focus and not letting her emotions get the best of her are two lessons Northwood/Solon Springs pitcher Zoey Vaara's late father, Paul, instilled in her.

With a patch for her late father on her left shoulder, Northwood/Solon Springs’ Zoey Vaara (4) fires a pitch
With a patch honoring her late father on her left shoulder, Northwood/Solon Springs’ Zoey Vaara (4) fires a pitch during their game with Clear Lake in Minong on Tuesday, May 10, 2022.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram
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MINONG — When Northwood/Solon Springs senior pitcher Zoey Vaara steps onto the softball diamond, she’s 100% focused.

Northwood/Solon Springs’ Zoey Vaara (4) looks towards first base from the pitcher’s mound
Northwood/Solon Springs’ Zoey Vaara (4) looks towards first base from the pitcher’s circle during their game with Clear Lake in Minong on Tuesday, May 10, 2022. Vaara and her teammates wear a patch on their shoulders to honor her father, Paul Vaara.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

Whether in the pitcher's circle or in the batter’s box, Vaara blocks out the crowd and negative thoughts, putting her mental energy on the task at hand.

“It’s a switch I can flip on in my head—I don't even know how I do it,” Vaara said. “The only other time I notice it happening is when I’m taking tests in school; it’s the same kind of focus.”

Being able to flip that switch and sharpen her focus is a skill Vaara has cultivated, something her late father and longtime coach, Paul Vaara, pushed her to improve.

That, and her batting.

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“That was one big thing I wish he could be here to experience, because I was never really a good hitter and we would always work on it,” Zoey said.

Northwood/Solon Springs is 13-1-1 going into the WIAA Division 4 softball tournament against Shell Lake on Tuesday, May 24. Zoey’s record is 13-0, with a 1.12 earned-run average, 78 strikeouts and 13 walks.

Northwood/Solon Springs’ Zoey Vaara (4) watches her ball fly into the outfield
Northwood/Solon Springs’ Zoey Vaara (4) watches her ball fly into the outfield during their game with Clear Lake in Minong on Tuesday, May 10, 2022.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

In the box, Zoey is batting .405 and has a 0.999 on-base and slugging percentage, with 14 runs batted in, seven walks and five strikeouts.

She’s one of the most consistent hitters for Northwood/Solon Springs, said Dale Rajala, who coaches the team with Jackson Terry and Jason Schultz.

“He would be beaming with pride—and he is beaming with pride—knowing she (Zoey) has fulfilled his vision, his goals and his dreams for his daughter,” Rajala said.

Working toward a vision

Paul Vaara was 49 years old when he died on Feb. 9, 2020. In addition to Zoey and her sister Annika, Paul is survived by his wife, Erin, and many family members and friends.

That includes his best friend since childhood, Rajala.

Rajala and Paul were at a softball coaching clinic in Wisconsin Dells when Paul died unexpectedly. Rajala said Paul suffered from a condition where he would sometimes pass out. Authorities were not able to pinpoint what caused Paul’s death, but Rajala said he believes Paul fainted and his airway was cut off.

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The two were at the clinic for the first time as coaches of the Northwood/Solon Springs co-op softball program, a vision they worked to create for a long time.

Paul Vaara, left, and Dale Rajala take in a game at Comerica Park.
Paul Vaara, left, and Dale Rajala take in a game at Comerica Park in Detroit. The pair were best friends since childhood.
Contributed / Dale Rajala

“Paulie was just so happy to finally have that feeling of accomplishment, of ‘We’re here now.’ I was getting six, eight texts a day (from Paul) just about everything,” Rajala said. “We knew we had finally brought it together and we were both excited to see it through. That was probably one of the greatest days we had together as coaches—that whole day was amazing, until it wasn’t.”

The friends spent years coaching against each other. Rajala said youth sports for children in the Northwood and Solon Springs areas are combined, but most were separate at the high school level.

Seeing that participation numbers would one day drop to the point where the schools may not be able to field teams, Paul and Rajala got to work.

“We thought it was just appropriate to bring the high school program together as well and to finish it together as a high school unit, and so far the results have been incredible,” Rajala said.

In 2021, the combined softball team went 18-3. They were Lakeland-East Conference Champions and regional champions. Zoey came in second in conference MVP voting.

Northwood/Solon Springs’ Zoey Vaara stands next to the painting on the team’s dugout in memory of her father, Paul Vaara
Northwood/Solon Springs’ Zoey Vaara stands next to the painting on the team’s dugout in memory of her father, Paul Vaara, during practice in Minong on Friday, May 13, 2022. "Seize the Day" was Paul Vaara's motto.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

Despite being a major part of the team’s success, Zoey admitted she was surprised by her performance as a junior. Her goal this year was to pick up where she left off.

Mission accomplished.

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"I didn’t think it was possible for her to be better than last year and she is," Rajala said.

So far this season, Zoey is locating her pitches well, mixing up her speeds and getting good ball movement, all of which keep hitters guessing, the coaches said.

“I’ve never really been a fast pitcher. I’ve kind of just thrown batters off balance so they don’t hit it on the barrel every time — it’s a pop-up or it’s a little blooper or a grounder,” Zoey said.

Terry and Rajala also noted Zoey’s growth in confidence and as a leader on the team.

“She is the unquestioned leader on the field for our team and our program. She’s the flag bearer of our program, she’s working with the youth kids," Terry said. "She’s getting us started in practice and in drills.

"And the way she carries herself quickly spreads throughout the rest of the girls: 95% of the time that’s positive, and we’re still working on the few times that it’s not," Terry said with a laugh.

‘Forever our sport’

Paul Vaara helps his daughter, Zoey Vaara, with her swing
Paul Vaara helps his daughter, Zoey Vaara, with her swing. The pair spent countless hours over the years practicing the sport they both loved.
Contributed / Zoey Vaara

Around the time Zoey was in fourth grade, her dad saw she had a knack for pitching and that she enjoyed it.

From there on out, they spent as much time as they could working on her skill set.

Before Zoey left for tournaments with her traveling team, she and Paul would go to the field to work. He set up a spot on the school stage for her to pitch after basketball practice because there wasn’t room for them to pitch in the gym. The pair would squeeze in a pitching session before family outings.

The time allowed Zoey and Paul to share their love of the game and to bond.

A faded message to her dad can be seen on Zoey Vaara’s shoe
A faded message to her dad can be seen on Zoey Vaara’s cleat during practice in Minong on Friday, May 13, 2022. The words read 'Forever our sport.'
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

Zoey has the words ‘Forever our sport’ written on her cleats in memory of her dad. She can hear Paul’s voice in her head when her emotions are getting the best of her.

“Whenever I get in my head I hear him, because that was always the big thing—to stay mentally focused, to not get in your head,” she said.

Paul died just about a month before the COVID-19 pandemic shut the world down. To cope, Zoey and Rajala did what they said Paul would have wanted: They got in the gym.

“We threw and were preparing as if we were still going (to play softball),” Rajala said. “We needed that, I think, for more reasons than just softball. It was therapy, I think, to both of us to do that.”

Zoey agreed.

How did Zoey get through the 2021 season—her first without her dad?

With a few tears in her eyes, she pointed at Rajala, then Terry, and said her mom, Erin, was a huge help, too.

Northwood/Solon Springs’ Zoey Vaara, left, talks to her coach Dale Rajala
Northwood/Solon Springs’ Zoey Vaara, left, talks to her coach Dale Rajala during practice in Minong on Friday, May 13, 2022.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

Rajala, who also wiped a few tears from his eyes remembering the first weeks after Paul's death, described Erin as “the rock.”

“She held us all together. She kept everybody in the right frame of mind,” he said.

“All while trying to keep herself in the right frame of mind, which is hard—staying strong for other people,” Zoey added.

Moving forward

Paul was a longtime teacher and coach at Northwood School, someone who built relationships with students across the school district, Terry said. He also served as a sports official.

In Paul's honor, teams across the district wore patches with his initials—PV—on their uniforms. Paul's motto "Seize the Day" is painted onto the softball field dugout with his initials, as well.

Rajala said he feels Paul’s presence often. One such moment happened last year on the softball field, a place Paul spent a lot of time and energy maintaining.

“It was a warm, sunny day, not a cloud in the sky, no wind. We didn’t rake the infield very well, so I had the rake in my hand and I was heading out to the infield,” Rajala said. “I was like ‘He’d be pissed right now.’ And all of a sudden, out of nowhere, this little mini twister comes down on top of me and takes my hat and launches it almost over the fence.”

“Like 30 yards — it was insane,” Terry said.

The Vaara family poses with the NCAA Division 1 softball championship trophy on a trip to Oklahoma to watch the Women's College World Series.
The Vaara family poses with the NCAA Division I softball championship trophy on a trip to Oklahoma to watch the Women's College World Series.
Contributed / Zoey Vaara

“And all of a sudden, it was gone. I went to Zoey and I said, ‘He’s kicking my butt because we’ve got to get that infield raked,’” Rajala said. “It was your dad.”

Zoey remembers her dad being “sarcastic, very sarcastic,” she said with a chuckle.

Paul loved to travel and rooted for Wisconsin’s sports teams. He loved the Star Wars film franchise, and he enjoyed golfing.

The Vaaras took family trips annually, and Zoey’s favorite was a last-minute trip to see the Women’s College World Series in Oklahoma.

“It was something we would watch together and to see it in person was cool,” Zoey said. “I always would look up to the D-I softball players, obviously, and so to see them in action was cool and to spend that time together is something that I really cherish.”

In the fall, Zoey plans to start a new chapter in college.

Asked if she would continue to play softball, she said "No, no softball. I wasn’t really offered, but I kind of knew I wanted to do something else because it brings back a lot of emotions."

She plans to attend the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire to study nursing. She hopes to become a pediatric nurse.

Jen Zettel-Vandenhouten is the regional editor for Duluth Media Group, overseeing the Cloquet Pine Journal and the Superior Telegram.
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