Melissa Fracker did a little soul searching after the COVID-19 pandemic hit last spring.
With sports shut down, the Western Connecticut State assistant softball coach had plenty of time to reflect on what she wanted to do.
“I decided I wanted to give head coaching a real try and see more than just New England, so when the job at Superior came up, I was excited to move to a new part of the country,” Fracker said.
Fracker, 31, got the Wisconsin-Superior coaching job, and while her first season as a collegiate head coach hasn’t been without growing pains, it’s sure ending on a high note as the Yellowjackets qualified for their fourth NCAA Division III tournament in program history.
Sixth-seeded Wisconsin-Superior (22-14) opens play in the Waverly, Iowa, regional against top-seeded St. Olaf (24-6) at 10 a.m. Friday.
“I feel like we’re just trying to bring the momentum and keep things rolling,” UWS pitcher Tayler Kraemer said. “They have all the pressure being the No. 1 seed, so it would be awesome to just come in and take that away from them. I feel like our team has kind of embraced our underdog spirit. We are running with that momentum and embracing that mantra.”
The Yellowjackets did quite well in their underdog role last week, taking their No. 5 seeding all the way to a championship victory in the UMAC Softball Tournament.
It certainly wasn’t handed to them. They first beat Northland College 7-2. They needed eight innings to beat rival St. Scholastica 5-4. They played nine innings in their next two contests, losing the first then winning the second, the latter of which wasn’t complete till Saturday’s final day due to darkness.
They then needed to beat Northwestern twice and the Yellowjackets did just that, 5-2 and 4-0 as Kraemer pitched all six games of the tournament, tossing a five-hitter with four strikeouts in the clincher.
“Tayler definitely saved her best for last,” Fracker said. “The very last inning was her 16th inning that day and she was throwing the hardest I saw her throw all weekend. Once I saw her get on that mound in the seventh inning of the second championship game I knew that was it. I knew it was over. I knew there was no way nobody was touching her.”
One person who wasn’t surprised by the performance was the Yellowjackets’ shortstop, Kaela Kraemer, Tayler’s older sister, who has been seeing this her whole life, since their days playing around their hometown of Spring Green, Wisconsin.
Kaela said when the temperature goes up, so does younger sister’s game.
“She is a warm-weather pitcher, so going into the tournament knowing it was going to be 75 degrees was kind of a blessing, just because I knew she was just going to kind of pop off for this part of the season,” Kaela Kraemer said. “We play most of our games in the super cold, so knowing that it was going to be warm for the tournament was just good news.
“I’ve never seen her pitch quite that well, but I feel like I’ve always known that she could do it. I knew she would get there in time.”
Tayler’s time might still be to come, who knows? In terms of eligibility, she’s still just a freshman, having played sparingly in the COVID-shortened 2020 campaign.
The sisters are obviously close, “an understatement,” Kaela says, and also quite similar in appearance. It was that kind of closeness that helped Tayler convince Kaela to transfer to UWS from Madison College after the 2019 season.
The Kraemer sisters are also quite close in performance, too, being able to hit, run the bases, play defense and play hard. In that title-game win, they scored three of the Yellowjackets’ four runs and had four of their six hits batting 1-2 in the order, with Kaela, a sophomore in terms of eligibility, being the leadoff hitter.
Kaela Kraemer leads the team in batting average at .413 followed by Tayler at .376. Tayler, the ace on the mound, is 15-8 with a 2.84 ERA, with 111 strikeouts in 149 innings. No UWS pitcher has logged more than 57 innings than ol’ rubber arm.
“I can’t even tell you what’s the most innings I’ve ever pitched, but this past weekend was definitely up there,” Tayler Kraemer said. “I feel like I’ve always been the kind of person who gets better as time goes on. My arm got worse every day but I just kind of went with it. I just had to loosen up and then towards the end I just got that light at the end of the tunnel kind of feeling and I was like, ‘I know I can finish this.’”
And UWS completed the stunner.
“I always knew we had a lot of potential because you see it all the time at practice, but last weekend was the first time everything came together this season,” Kaela Kraemer said.
As if dealing with COVID-19 protocols wasn’t enough this spring, the UWS softball team was still getting used to a new coach and new teammates. The start? Understandably a little bumpy. The end? Almost too good to be true.
“I think it was kind of rough at the beginning of the year,” Tayler Kraemer said. “We were all kind of feeling each other out, feeling out the freshman and everything else. I think that as the season went on, we started winning more and really gaining trust in (coach Fracker), and then she was able to really tell us what we needed to work on and what we needed to do to get better and by now, we’re just one big family, so it’s been an amazing ride.”