By Steve Gunn
Local Sports Journal
NORTH MUSKEGON – When Katie Hendrickson transferred from Reeths-Puffer to North Muskegon High School in 2012, it was purely for academic reasons.
She swears she had no idea there was a tailor-made spot just waiting for her on the North Muskegon softball team.
The Norse had a talented lineup that spring, but no obvious pitcher. That could have been a big problem, because pitching is a very big part of fast-pitch softball.
So Hendrickson, who had been a promising No. 2 pitcher for the Reeths-Puffer varsity team as a freshman, stepped right into the Norse lineup, and the rest is happy history.
North Muskegon won 30 games in 2012, captured the West Michigan Conference title and won a Division 4 district championship.
Hendrickson led the way as a sophomore, pitching 210 innings while posting a 28-7 record with 270 strikeouts, only 53 walks and a 1.43 earned run average. She also contributed at the plate with five home runs and 27 RBIs.
“When she came in we were kind of all wondering what we were going to do,” said North Muskegon softball coach Larry Witham. “We were missing one ingredient, which is a big ingredient in softball.
“Then Katie walked in and became our number pitcher from the get go. With her unique skill set – the way she throws the ball and the way she hits – she brought qualities to the team that we really needed.
“Katie definitely filled a void.”
Hendrickson has continued to be dominant since that season, on the mound and at the plate.
Last year she was 19-9 on the mound with 226 strikeouts, only 28 walks and a 2.18 ERA. She also hit for a monstrous .493 average with seven home runs.
So far this season she is 5-2 on the mound with 64 strikeouts, four walks, and a 1.46 ERA. At the plate she has three homers and eight RBI.
She certainly showed off her talents last Thursday, pitching a five-inning no-hitter with 14 strikeouts and hitting two homers (including a grand slam) in North Muskegon’s 12-0 victory over Orchard View.
“With her on the rubber we’re in every game,” Witham said after that contest. “She’s had three shutouts in a row. When that happens, all we need to do is score a run to win. Not only is she pitching us into a good situation, but our team is also playing good defense and hitting the ball well.”
Ironically, softball did not come naturally to Hendrickson, at least not at first.
She says her mother signed her up for recreational softball at the age of seven, but she quit after a season because she didn’t like it.
She returned to the game at the age of 11, if for no other reason than she wanted to find a spring and summer hobby.
As fate would have it, the little league team she was assigned to lacked a pitcher.
“I started out at first base, but then we all took turns pitching, to see who could do it,” said Hendrickson, who has signed a letter of intent to play college softball at the University of North Dakota. “I did the best and just kept going with it. I was uneasy about the idea at first, but as the season went on I started to like it. Now I absolutely love it.”
Hendrickson said she started to become a good pitcher in the eighth grade, and has continued to improve ever since, thanks to the help of pitching coaches like Matt Houseman (assistant softball coach at Muskegon Community College) and Rob Dunham (assistant coach at Davenport University and owner of West Coast Fundamentals).
Hendrickson is a team player, and says she doesn’t mind how hitters are retired – by the strong fielders playing behind her, or with one of her many strikeouts.
“I knew we have a really good defense, so I don’t have to put any pressure on myself,” Hendrickson said. “But I like strikeouts a lot, too. Every game I try to top the (strikeout total) from the last one.”
Witham says Hendrickson throws as hard as any softball pitcher in the area – topping out in the low 60s – but says it’s her ability to control her pitches, and place them where she wants them, that keeps hitters swinging and missing.
“She’s a great location pitcher,” he said. “She moves the ball around and rarely throws down the middle. She has a tremendous ‘rise ball’, a tremendous curveball, and she throws it inside and out. She can spot every pitch she throws.
“What you’re seeing is the product of a lot of years of hard work and sacrifice. She’s a very hard worker. She comes in at 6 a.m. and throws, even during the offseason. It certainly has been paying dividends.”
The Norse return a lot of players from last year’s team, which finished second in the conference, and their goals are high this spring. They were 6-3 overall after beating Orchard View last week, and are hoping to win a very tough West Michigan Conference, which includes strong opponents like Whitehall, Ravenna and Oakridge.
But even if the Norse don’t win the league, Witham and Hendrickson say playing in a tough conference is the best way to prepare for the state tournament, and they would like to go a long way in the postseason this year.
“We only had three seniors graduate from last year, so I think this is the year we go far,” Hendrickson said. “It’s our goal to win districts and take it from there. Playing the real competitive teams in our conference gets us going. We will know what to expect in the tournament.”