FARGO — Ava Kalbrener didn’t set out to be a softball player. She was never really interested in sports — until she jumped into a softball game.
Kalbrener went to one of her friend’s games in third grade, and saw everyone playing and having fun in the dugout. She walked up to the coach and asked if she could play.
“They gave me a jersey and I started playing,” said Kalbrener, who did dance and gymnastics for a few years as a kid. “I wasn’t interested in sports for the longest time.”
Four years later, Kalbrener was suiting up for Fargo North.
She was a pitcher and shortstop when she first started playing, but something clicked when she set foot onto the rubber.
“I definitely fell more in love with pitching and was a lot better at that, so I shifted over,” Kalbrener said. “I kept working at it and eventually there was a spot where I found my knack for it and got sorta good at it. From there, it just kind of took off.”
Now a senior, Kalbrener has made her presence felt in the circle. She’s delivered one stellar performance after another on the mound for the Spartans (6-7, 7-7 EDC) with a 1.18 ERA in 53.1 innings. She’s racked up 115 strikeouts this season.
“She’s just been incredible on the mound,” North head coach Taylor Moore said. “Really takes control of the game. We had an umpire the other day tell us how she just makes it look so easy and she’s so relaxed.”
Kalbrener stays calm on the rubber. She broke a school record early this season with 18 strikeouts against Fargo Davies. Less than two weeks later, she bested her own record with a 19-strikeout performance against Valley City on Monday, May 3.
She’s punched numerous hitters out with a combination of her curveball and rise ball, her lethal weapons. The senior pitcher and first baseman said her rise ball was the main reason for the two record-breaking performances this season, though the curveball was up there, too.
“It was a little hard to believe at first,” Kalbrener said of her record performances. “But I was definitely proud of myself and excited, because I feel like I’m helping my team a lot by doing that.”
Kalbrener pitched a perfect game Tuesday against Grand Forks Red River. She struck out 11 to lift the Spartans to a 10-0, 5-inning win. She also drove in four runs.
Kalbrener is just as dominant at the plate. She’s one of the top hitters on the team, Moore said, and was batting a thousand during the 19-strikeout Valley City game.
Kalbrener has 22 hits in 43 at-bats (.512) with 22 RBIs, six doubles and two home runs.
“She’s overall a great player. She’s a really hard worker and such a humble kid,” Moore said. “She’s just been so successful and has a lot to be proud of.”
Kalbrener wasn’t expecting to do this well. She missed her junior season because of the coronavirus pandemic, and didn’t see much improvement during summer ball. She worked on refining her mechanics and improving pitches all winter.
It paid off.
“It was kind of a surprise to me. Everything sort of clicked for me,” Kalbrener said. “When we started playing games this year, I definitely noticed that over the winter I'd gotten way better. It’s a perfect way to go out.”
Kalbrener shares a love for the game with a father who played baseball for North Dakota State. Her dad, Jason, was a starting pitcher for the Bison for four seasons. His 165 strikeouts are the sixth-most all-time in program history.
While Kalbrener’s success has been a bit of a surprise to her, it isn’t to Moore. Moore, who played softball at Aurora University (Ill.), an NCAA Division III school, is in her second season at the helm. She saw something special in Kalbrener in the first open gym — her first introduction to the players.
“My first impression of Ava was that she was a really hard worker,” Moore said. “She was doing just about anything she could to improve her game and be a good teammate.”
Kalbrener, who was voted captain this year, has helped her team immensely from the circle with her athletic ability, but she’s also a true leader for the Spartans, Moore said.
“She’s someone the younger kids look up to. She’s really supportive of her teammates all the time, even when things aren't going our way,” Moore said. “There’s a lot of times where she could’ve gotten frustrated but she held it together and kept supporting her teammates. Great kid to coach.”
Kalbrener’s plans for next fall are still up in the air, though she’d like to play softball in college.