Klein softball culture reinvented under coach Lange
What made this year distinct for Klein head softball coach Jessica Lange was how much the senior class impacted the program.
Lange has been with the current senior class for four years, starting off as the assistant coach in 2013. This year, she was head coach.
Even though the Lady Bearkats fell short of playing past the regular season, Lange witnessed the Class of 2018’s journey from beginning to end. She feels every group of seniors leaves their own legacy.
“They did a fantastic job of leading the underclassmen into doing everything that was being asked for them to do in offseason and putting in the extra work,” Lange said. “I think that’s what set them apart and made this year super special for us, just the culture that was reinvented.”
Lange was assistant coach under Candi Weige before Weige left for McNeese State and then became head coach at Bridgeland.
“I got to learn a lot from her…just helped to let me see other perspectives and then develop my own philosophy as well,” Lange said. “And to be able to implement all that into what I’m looking forward to bringing to Klein High School.”
The coaching staff didn’t make a lot of changes heading into the 2018-19 season, but the intensity level and a harder work ethic was the top priority.
“I gave them a heads up — I knew I was getting the position before last year ended,” Lange said. “I just told them what was going to be expected of them.”
Klein (19-13, 9-7) finished fifth in District 15-6A after losing a play-in game vs. Klein Oak for fourth place, a chance to go to the playoffs. Klein Collins placed first in 15-6A followed by The Woodlands and Oak Ridge.
“Klein softball has always had talented players,” Lange said. “We just have a hard time buying into that talent because we’re always facing really competitive teams too. We kind of get hidden in the shadows a little bit, so I talked to them about ways that we could persevere through the district that we have been aligned with.”
During the last week of regular season, the Lady Bearkats had two chances to clinch a postseason spot. They ended up dropping both games by a combined four runs.
While the Lady Bearkats lost to College Park 4-3 in the regular season finale, April 18, Klein Oak had beaten Klein Cain 4-2 to force a wild-card game for a trip to the playoffs.
“The Conroe schools did an amazing job,” Lange said. “I kept saying, they’re (College Park) going to take one away from somebody and unfortunately it had to be me. Just hats off to them for always fighting and never letting up.”
After Klein defeated Klein Oak in the first round, and Klein Oak came back and beat them the second round, it was a double play that sealed the Lady Bearkats’ season in the third meeting.
The Lady Panthers scored five runs in the first inning and led by 10 runs two times before eventually holding off the Lady Bearkats for a 13-10 win at Klein Cain, April 19, which clinched their fifth straight playoff appearance. Klein Oak won on a game-ending double play.
“I really emphasized to the girls: ‘One at a time,’” Lange said. “That was our saying for this year. I think we got away from that a little bit at the end; the intensity at the end of the season and closing it out; where they were and where they wanted to be.”
Conroe and Klein ISDs, both considered good districts, proved to be a challenge.
“There’s pros and cons to being in a tough district,” Lange said. “We knew that it was going to be an extremely tough district to fight through. When they put us both together I think all of us where nervous about each other.
“But there’s pros to that because it really helps prepare our district for playoffs. I think it’s why teams in our district make it so far. We always end up seeing each other deep in the rounds of playoffs.”
‘Captains at heart’
The Lady Bearkats designated captains for the first time this year. With such a big group and nine seniors, the coaching staff felt it was something the squad needed.
The two senior captains were Abby Frank and Haley Custer. The junior captain on the mound was Mak Cutbirth.
“They all brought a little bit of something in their own way,” Lange said. “Every single one of these nine seniors, whether they were on the starting lineup or not, they had a role to play and they embraced that role and they did a great job of leading in their own special way.”
Some of them where quiet leaders like Ashlynn Ureste.
“Then you got Payton Bell in right field, who just did a fantastic job leading by example too, along with Alex Castro,” Lange said. “I would have to say that even though Frank and Custer were my two senior captains, they were all captains at heart.”
Custer, who was a first team all-district pitcher and the team MVP last year, tore her meniscus at the beginning of the year.
“She didn’t even get to pitch a single game until the week after she got cleared and that was against The Woodlands,” Lange said. “That was awesome of her to come in and pitch the way she did.”
In addition to Cutbirth, a talented group of sophomores is waiting on deck.
“With all the experience she (Cutbirth) got this year and not even doing the best that she thought she could have done, she’s already hungry (and) ready to work; asking for stuff to do,” Lange said.
‘Keeping it creative’
The team’s three sophomores include UT commit Ally Clements behind the plate, who hit .500 consistently all season, and twin sisters Cade and Callie Baker.
“And we got a pretty good group of incoming freshmen that we’re looking forward to see how they step up into their roles,” Lange said.
Lange said she wouldn’t be able to do what she does without the assistant coaches, who play big roles in the program.
“We get together every season and think of what went well this season, what do we need to rethink,” Lange said.
Furthermore, in high school, coaches don’t get to recruit their own kids.
“Every year you have to look at the talent that you have and think of something new that keeps them on their toes, ready to work,” Lange said. “We always try to add something new that’s going to be beneficial to the group of kids that we have that year.
“Maybe what we did this year for this group might not work for our next group, so we just think of different things and ideas, and they just do a tremendous job of keeping it creative.”
Until next season, the coaching staff will collaborate and try to keep it as fun and competitive as possible so the Lady Bearkats are ready to go in 15-6A.
“Even though we don’t have the ending to show for it, these group of girls still did incredible and the legacy that these seniors left is going to be one to talk about,” Lange said. “We’re still incredibly proud of how they persevered, kept fighting. We’re all just really proud of them.”