BY DENNIS SILVA II | firstname.lastname@example.org
Mayde Creek softball coach Jill Voss struggles to pick her favorite Ashley Kriesel moment. Two come to mind.
The first came during the spring of 2016, between Games 2 and 3 of the Rams’ best-of-three area playoff series against previously undefeated Cypress Woods. Voss was a nervous wreck, her team down to a do-or-die game and a potential program-defining upset win. In midst of the rollercoaster pregame emotions and thoughts, Voss lost her lineup card and scurried back behind the dugout, where she tried to hold back tears.
“Nobody saw me. Ashley comes behind and I told her, ‘Hey, we need you. So, if you can go, we need you to go,’” Voss recalled telling her senior ace pitcher, who had also pitched each of the first two games of the series. “And she says to me, ‘No, we need you! Get in here!’ I’m in tears, trying to hold it together, and she calls me back to the dugout and I just say, ‘Yes, ma’am.’”
Voss laughs at the memory.
“She was our mother hen,” Voss said.
Kriesel was a calming influence. So assured, so steady. Voss remembers a time during the Rams’ strength and conditioning camp in the summer of 2014 when she ran into Kriesel, then in between her sophomore and junior years, during drills.
“Ashley was just working so hard,” Voss said. “She was the biggest girl out there, but she just made everybody work so much harder. She made the strong girls lift more and she made the fast girls run faster. She ran by me while I was running a different group, and I joked with her, ‘What are you working so hard for today, Kriesel?’ And she yells back, ‘Working today for May!’ I was like, huh?
“But I’ll be damned if May 1 wasn’t our first playoff game that next season, after falling short the year before. And that became our motto, all season: ‘Working today for May.’”
Stories like those come early and often when talking to anyone who knows Ashley Kriesel, whom Voss credits for putting Mayde Creek softball on the map. Stephen F. Austin University softball coach Nicole Dickson fondly remembers Kriesel beating everyone in a burpee exercise challenge.
“She killed it,” Dickson said. “Fastest burpees ever.”
There was also Kriesel’s Halloween performance last year as Pedro, from the movie “Napoleon Dynamite,” that brings a smile to Dickson’s face.
Kriesel was a prominent figure for the Rams and Ladyjacks. At Mayde Creek, she was the program’s first all-state player and led the nation in strikeouts with 307 in 2016. In her sophomore season at Galveston College in 2018, Kriesel averaged 8.4 strikeouts per game, totaling 227 and finishing in the top five nationally.
This senior college season, before the NCAA canceled spring sports due to precautions for the novel coronavirus, or COVID-19, Kriesel was electric, with 116 strikeouts and nine earned runs in 72 innings of work for a Ladyjacks club that had won 13 games in a row, and 19 of 23, when its season abruptly came to an end.
“She had an edge about her this season. Her mental toughness and confidence,” Dickson said. “Nothing was going to stop her. She’s always been a selfless player and worked for her teammates, and this season she just owned that leadership role for us.”
This season was also, likely, Kriesel’s swan song.
Though the NCAA recently granted a waiver to allow seniors in spring sports an extra year of eligibility, Kriesel said she plans to return home and get her ultrasound degree to further her pursuit of a career in radiology.
“I talked with Coach (Dickson) about my next steps in life and we were trying to figure out if me coming back would benefit me and my future,” Kriesel said. “I wouldn’t have the classes I’d need. SFA didn’t have that degree, so I’d be taking classes I’d already taken rather than going in and taking the next step and the classes I needed to graduate faster.”
“She will do the same thing in life, dominate and excel and take care of the people around her and leave a positive impact wherever she goes,” Dickson said. “She’s a difference-maker. As a coach, it’s been a privilege and blessing to work with her. She’s the kind of kid who makes you realize, ‘Hey, this is why I love my job.’ Because of kids like her who are coachable, competitive, humble, and just enjoyable for everyone to be around.”
Voss, however, holds out hope that Kriesel may change her mind.
“Between Coach Dickson and myself, I think we may try and talk her into it,” Voss said. “She was having a special year.”
A ‘PACKAGE ATHLETE’
The highlight of Kriesel’s senior season this year came early, during the team’s season opener against Southern on Feb. 7. Kriesel struck out 19 and walked one batter in a complete game no-hitter, allowing just two baserunners in establishing the program record for strikeouts in a single game.
“It was the first game, and it was a bittersweet moment for me knowing it was my last first game,” Kriesel said. “I had fun. It didn’t feel like anything special during the game. I didn’t even know I had 19 strikeouts until we were on the bus afterward going to go eat.”
Dickson, too, had had no idea of Kriesel’s accomplishment.
“I looked at her after the game and was like, ‘Ashley, you had 19?!’” Dickson said. “But to us, that’s the type of performance you get from her 99.9 percent of the time. She makes it look effortless.”
Indeed, Kriesel had double-figure strikeouts in six of 12 games. In two others, she had eight and nine strikeouts, respectively.
“Each game, I’m just relaxed on doing what I need to do,” Kriesel said. “I don’t really get ahead of that. I just focus on one batter at a time and one pitch at a time.”
It’s been her way since the Mayde Creek days. Kriesel was the cornerstone of a program that won two playoff games after winning just three games, total, in the previous two years before her arrival.
“In my 19 years of coaching, I have only coached a handful of ‘package athletes’—physically, mentally and emotionally athletic,” Voss said. “Not just that they can throw or hit hard. Ashley is one of the top three package athletes I’ve ever coached. She put us on the map, definitely.”
Voss, a Katy High product, arrived at Mayde Creek in 2014, Kriesel’s sophomore year. Voss brought discipline, purpose and mental toughness, all things Kriesel embraced.
“When I first got there, there was no passion in the program to put work in,” Kriesel said. “But when Coach Voss got there, she believed in us. She knew what we had, and she was willing to sacrifice and work with us. Her being there established a motivation in every girl on our team. It makes a difference knowing that our coach really does care about us. She just kept building and building and building, until she built this masterpiece now to where people take Mayde Creek seriously.”
When Voss first talked to her new team, she had players fill out a questionnaire that included what position they played. Kriesel put “backup pitcher.”
“I looked at her and said, ‘OK, well, we’re going to train you to pitch,’” Voss said. “I asked her why she didn’t pitch. She said the previous coach pitched another kid, and when I talked to her one-on-one, she said she couldn’t last seven innings. I knew with her mentality, if I could just get her to buy into it, it was going to be something special. She was only a sophomore.”
Voss needed a pitcher to build her program around. That pitcher, she determined, would be Kriesel. Kriesel dedicated herself to conditioning and getting in shape. As a result, she went from being a little-used relief pitcher her freshman year to throwing almost every inning for Voss the rest of the way, taking ownership and accountability of her role and talent.
“We didn’t have a whole lot of defense behind Ashley,” Voss said. “The defense might botch a play, and Ashley would get frustrated at giving up a baserunner and strike the next batter out.”
Kriesel always had the physical ability. She is a power pitcher with uncanny location. But Voss taught her to think the game.
Voss often gives her players books to read during the offseason. One that sticks out to Kriesel is “Mind Gym” by Gary Mack and David Casstevens. Voss coached players to learn how to deal with adversity and “control the controllables.” She encouraged players to embrace the role of the underdog.
“I used to not have a passionate and motivated mindset, and she’d talk me through things and explain things and broke things down in working one piece at a time to become a leader and become motivated and become passionate about something,” Kriesel said. “She was willing to work with anything and everything I had just to better myself.”
COMFORTABLE AND PREPARED
Almost a month after finding out her senior season was over, Kriesel has yet to come to grips with the suddenness of it all.
“At first, our coach told us they were just suspending things until March 30. At that point, it was OK. We still figured everything would be fine,” Kriesel said. “Then, March 14, she sent us a text saying the NCAA canceled all spring sports. It was stunning. I was in shock. I couldn’t believe what I was reading.
“To play my last game, not knowing it was my last game … I was like, ‘What the heck?’”
Kriesel yearns for closure. Dickson told her seniors that the program will hold a Senior Day sometime next season for the Class of 2020 so they have an appropriate ending to their collegiate careers.
The Ladyjacks, tabbed as the preseason favorite to win the Southland Conference this year, were 19-4. Kriesel was 11-1 with an 0.88 ERA and 116 strikeouts to 31 walks. At the plate, she was even more efficient, with two hits in four at-bats, scoring three runs with two RBIs and a home run.
“This team and Kriesel prepared hard every day to give themselves a shot to win the conference and make a postseason run,” Dickson said. “I think we are all still dealing in our own ways. The best thing about our kids and program is that we focus on separating the person from the player; softball doesn’t identify each of us and our worth. Our culture helped our kids process what was happening and how to deal with it, and learn and grow and adapt and overcome.”
More than anything, Kriesel said she will take with her the friendships made. Teammates became family. Coaches became mentors. She will also take with her the work ethic learned. She had matured so well. Growing, adapting and overcoming, as Dickson likes to put it. Kriesel personified all of that.
In a way, the senior season was a metaphor for Kriesel’s process. She did not know the end result. She had no control over the outcome. But she did what she could, put in the time, energy and effort, and worked for the best possible success.
“Last year, I was like a freshman,” Kriesel said. “Even though I played (junior college) ball, I still had to learn as I went. Coming into my senior year, I had that experience of knowing what to expect, knowing how to prepare. In our fall season, our coach really pounded into us how to train and be ready. All of those aspects put together kind of made me comfortable mentally and in doing the work and being prepared.”