Kylee Lahners was part of the Washington softball team long before she pulled on the uniform.
Every year, the UW team would visit Palm Springs for the Cathedral City Classic Tournament, and Lahners would watch the girls play.
“I remember always going with my dad for, like, five years to go up and watch Washington and watch all of the softball,” she said, pulling at her long blonde ponytail with one hand and steadying herself on the skateboard she was sitting on with the other.
Lahners, now 19 started playing softball when she was 6 years old. Bonding over the sport with her dad – he played baseball and was a pitcher at the University of Southern California – she said she was “always the little kid who was playing all of these sports.”
“I did softball because he did baseball and ended up loving the sport and sticking with it all the way through,” Lahners said as she rolled back and forth on the skateboard. “That’s one of the ways I connected with my dad, and he loved to always take me out and hit some balls around. We connected on the sports side.”
Laughing, she said she had no brothers, and that growing up, she was “a little son to him.”
Those days of watching the UW softball team from the perspective of a fan are long gone, and the roles have pulled a Freaky Friday-like switch. Lahners is now a second baseman for the team she grew up watching from the sidelines.
“When I was a kid and wanted the autographs from everyone, and now to see the little kids with a big smile coming up to you and asking for your autograph … it makes you realize it’s not all about you, it’s about the team and the people in the stands, watching you and looking up to you,” Lahners said.
And she’s willing to do anything for her team. Despite training at second base for the past few years, Lahners said she’s comfortable in any position on the field.
“Wherever they want me to go I’ll go there,” Lahners said of considering herself a puzzle piece that can fit anywhere. “I’ll give it my all and do whatever to help the team.”
She’s sure had the practice. The adaptable Lahners grew up playing shortstop until her sophomore year in high school and made her move to second base shortly after her switching from shortstop to right fielder. Second base is where she became serious about her position and put a lot of effort into practices so she could build up her skillset. It’s her zone now.
A California native, Lahners has quickly transitioned to the Seattle environment from her home in Laguna Hills. She shrugs off the rain, doesn’t complain about the cold and never wishes for better weather.
The difference between the two areas – sunshine in California, overcast skies in Seattle – may be like comparing lemons to lemonade for the average person, but coach Heather Tarr sees the similarities and said she thinks they contribute to a better softball player.
“Southern California generally breeds the most competitive type of player because they’re coming out of a situation like ours [in Seattle] where you might not play the best and you might not play every day, but can you deal with not playing that day but be confident enough to play the next day?” Tarr said of Lahners and third baseman Courtney Gano, the new California girls on the team. “Those kind of players can usually win out and get sifted through and be a good rock at the end of the day.”
Lahners said that despite being laid back – her motto is “just be happy and positive” – she has a strong competitive streak once she pulls her helmet over the ponytail braid she wears for games. Competitiveness is also what she said is the biggest difference between playing in high school and college.
“High school softball is kind of like, well, I wouldn’t say a joke because that’s rude, but it’s more ‘We’re out here having fun in the sun,’ and it’s not too competitive,” Lahners said. “College softball is about not just about having fun but also being in it to win it and going hard all the time. The competitiveness in college is a lot greater.”
Lahners has gone through a lot of transitions in the past year: Moving from California to Seattle and then adapting to the more intense game environment from her laid-back high school years. But she’s flowed through them as gracefully as her bat swings through the air. Not to say that she hasn’t had some help from other players.
Trying to pack for one of her first road trips, Lahners said she was having trouble figuring out what to bring and how to fit it all in her duffle. Utility player and pitcher Jenna Clifton – a senior and Lahner’s locker-mate – helped her transition.
“I had no idea how to pack all of this stuff into one big bag so she was showing me the way to put my bat in and what to put in first,” Lahners said. “She’s always helped me out.”
Her approachable personality has helped Lahners develop unique relationships among all of the girls on the team. Clifton is her locker buddy. Infielder Kimberlee Souza is her breakfast companion for their 9:30 a.m. class, and they do their laundry together in McMahon residence hall. And senior Nikia Williams shares a pregame routine with Lahners every time they’re about to head out onto the field.
“My hair always gets braided by Nikia before the game on the bus, and we have a thing where I give her a white-chocolate truffle ball, and she gives me one, and I eat mine on the bus and she eats hers on the way back after the game,” Lahners said. “That’s just our thing that we do every game.”
And those aren’t the only superstitions Lahners has before pulling on her helmet. She always has to have two pieces of gum – her preference is Stride peppermint but as long as the flavor is the same, Lahners said she isn’t picky about the brand – that she has one in during warm-ups and saves the other in her pocket for when the game is about to start. She has to listen to Eminem’s “Till I Collapse” before every warm-up. When she’s traveling, Lahners will take her deodorant to spray across her body and do a chest bump with an equally fresh-smelling Clifton.
“It’s kind of weird but that’s what gets me in the mindset for the game,” Lahners said with an embarrassed laugh. “If I don’t do something. then I start freaking out.”
In the future, Lahners wants to continue to play softball, but after college, she would like to be a representative of an athletic company – possibly Nike – or coach the sport at a Division I school.
At this point for Lahners, softball comes before school. She said the sport comes easily to her, whereas schoolwork is more difficult to comprehend.
“I know that sounds bad, but softball just comes second nature to me; I’m constantly always thinking about it,” she said, admitting she has to have the most tutoring on the team. “Right now the coaches are helping me with not only being the athlete I am but bringing that to the classrooms.”
Despite putting all of her effort into two full-time jobs, Lahners never gets herself into a mindset that strays from her “stay positive” motto. And she always smiles when she sees all of the little girls watching from the stands.
Lahners returned recently from a full-circle moment – a weekend playing in the Palm Springs tournament. And this time, she was an official part of the Washington team, as evidenced by the purple and gold she wore.
“After going out there when I was young, and then to actually play in it this year and to see my dad in the stands cheering me on … it was really cool,” Lahners said.
So even though Lahner’s father never got a son to play baseball with, it’s a good guess he’s more than content with his softball-loving daughter.