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Softball: Kuhl blocks out the pain

Despite multiple injuries to her knee over the years, Red Wing senior Hailey Kuhl has led the Wingers' infield this season, helping the team to a 7-10 record heading into Wednesday's Section 1AAA opener with Owatonna. (R-E file photo)

Watch Hailey Kuhl on a softball field and two things are immediately apparent: she gives every play everything she has, a true all-effort, all-the-time player. And then there is the obvious problem of everything she has not being everything she could be.

If everything goes according to plan, Kuhl will play softball at St. Catherine University next spring. Nothing is set in stone at this point, but Kuhl’s current coach, Jon Bohmach, said there is mutual interest between Kuhl and the Wildcats.

Also at issue: Kuhl’s left knee, or, rather, what’s left of it.

Two years ago, coming off of a broken back, Kuhl tore the ACL in her left knee. The injury required surgery, something that killed Kuhl’s sophomore season. 

Last year, Kuhl played a key role as a junior for Red Wing, and then continued to shake off the rust of two missed seasons by playing throughout the summer.

During the 2012-13 school year, Kuhl had hurt her knee again, but doctors had cleared her of any major injury. But one fateful day in the summer, Kuhl’s knee buckled.

“I took a nasty spill during a summer-league game and I ended up going back to the hospital. We got an MRI, and they were like, ‘It might be a meniscus tear. Two weeks to clean you up.’ But we found out that my ACL never was there. It never grew back. Basically, it just ate away at itself. So, as of right now, I have a torn meniscus, no ACL, a broken finger — just kidding, but the doctor said I could do surgery in the fall, and hopefully be back for softball in the spring.

“But I figured I played last year without (an ACL),” Kuhl continued, “I could do it again this year for basketball, and that’s what I did. I got through it.”

But is that an option going forward? Playing through a significant injury at any collegiate level is not something an athlete usually chooses to do. But Kuhl might.

“That’s the question: when to get (surgery),” Kuhl said. “I think the hardest thing right now is I still remember the pain and suffering (from the first surgery). I don’t want to get it, but you’re going to have to eventually … . I don’t know if I want to do it in the fall and be back for the spring or wait until I’m old.”

Despite her on-field persona, Kuhl talks about her injuries the way most people would read a grocery list. Bohmbach has seen Kuhl through much of her basketball and softball career, coaching her in both for several seasons. He does not approach the situation with the same casualness.

“We talked, and I said if it’s hurting you, you need to shut down for a little bit,” Bohmbach said of the basketball season. “We did that earlier in the year. Her main goal is to play softball. She made the decision to play her senior year. And I can’t argue with that. You put in a lot of time. And in high school sports, you’re playing in your town with your friends. And you’ll never have that again.”

Kuhl did make it through the basketball season relatively unscathed. But it took less than a week for the senior Winger to put Bohmbach and everyone else on notice that there would be no holding back for her final season of prep softball.

“First week of practice, she slid into second base on the gym floor,” Bohmbach said, shaking his head at the memory. “I had to get on her with some tough love. ‘What are you doing? We went this far for you to do something stupid?’ Then she took another base in a game that was kind of meaningless. And I was going to tell her again, but she does not know anything but going 110 percent. You love her for it, but she has to be reminded of that.”

Before anything happens with Kuhl playing in a different shade of purple at St. Kates, there is the small issue of the Section 1AAA playoffs to take care of. Unlike recent years, the Wingers are in position to make some noise in the postseason. And much of that success comes from the shortstop position, and the top of the lineup, where Kuhl has made a successful transition from behind the plate.

Ninth-seeded Owatonna will be the foe on Wednesday for the eighth-seeded Wingers, with the winner taking on top seed Lakeville South. It’s a moment that Bohmbach sees as another stepping stone for a program that has been down in recent years.

And it’s a step that Kuhl, whom Bohmbach said has grown into a true leader, is ready to take. At the mere mention of the season the Wingers have had, Kuhl’s face lights up. 

The decision to delay surgery has paid off not just for her future, but possibly for the future of the program she’ll call her own for at least one more game.

But one more game is not what Kuhl, or the Wingers, are hoping for. Asked what the Wingers need to do to keep playing, Kuhl flies through sentences at 100 mph, talking like she plays.

“The main thing we need to do is to get our bats going,” Kuhl said. “Once we have our bats going, that’s what does it for us. We need to keep our heads up and tell ourselves that we can do it. We’ve almost won some big games this year. We’ve won some big games. When we get our bats going it’s what fuels us, everyone knows, ‘I can hit her, too.’ Once we get on that hitting goal, then we got it in the bag.”

Kyle Stevens
Kyle Stevens is a sports reporter for the Red Wing Republican Eagle. Previously, Kyle worked at the Owatonna People’s Press, as well as KWLM and KLFN in Willmar. You can contact Kyle by phone at (651) 301-7879, via e-mail at, and follow him on Twitter @RE_KStevens.
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