Panthers’ Kussow aiding young pitchers

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Shoulder injury prevents senior from throwing

Greg Bates Times Herald Correspondent

After the first couple of Oconto Falls softball games this season, Makenna Kussow went home and cried.

She was having a tough time not being able to be on the diamond.

After three years as the starting pitcher for the Panthers, Kussow was forced to miss her senior season.

However, Kussow soon realized her new role on the team allowed her to be a valuable asset. She has spent this season as a student coach, helping out the young Oconto Falls pitching staff and assisting first-year head coach Cory Albrecht.

“At first, I was devastated that I couldn’t play, so I wanted to stay away,” Kussow said. “I didn’t think I’d be able to sit on the bench with them, but then we got a new head coach, and he didn’t want me to be just a manager, but to help with the pitchers, be involved. That made it more of a reality that I think I can do this.”

Albrecht has loved having Kussow work with the young and inexperienced varsity pitchers. Oconto Falls’ three main hurlers this season are all underclassmen: sophomores Kaitlin Albrecht and Josie Tolzman, and freshman Haley Bell.

“She kind of re-energized herself with the role of being the coach and being the mediator and being the mentor,” coach Albrecht said.

Kussow became a fixture in the circle as a freshman and was the team’s top thrower for her first two years. The right-hander started having her left shoulder pop out and dislocate during her sophomore season. She learned she had a condition called multidirectional instability. After physical therapy didn’t fix the injury, Kussow had to undergo surgery in August 2015.

Kussow didn’t have any issues during her junior season until right before Oconto Falls’ WIAA Division 2 regional playoff game. The same shoulder dislocated; one of the anchors that was inserted during surgery had popped. She was forced to go in for a second surgery in November to have 10 metal anchors put in.

“They told me when I had to have the second surgery that softball really wasn’t an option,” Kussow said.

Kussow finished her career with a 15-35 record and 5.69 ERA. She logged 333 innings and struck out 123 hitters.

When Kussow knew she couldn’t pitch any longer, coach Albrecht approached her to help with his pitchers.

“It was kind of bittersweet,” said Kaitlin Albrecht, one of the team’s starting pitchers and the coach’s daughter. “I was glad that she was still going to be a part of the team, but I was kind of sad because she wouldn’t be able to play and support the team that way. But she found a new way to be on the team and be a leader.”

Since Kussow is only two or three years older than the pitchers on the squad, she’s able to relate to and interact well with girls.

“I think they understand that I know how they’re feeling, because I was in their position last year – like a frustrating inning or you can’t get a pitch,” Kussow said. “I talk to them and they understand that I understand how they feel. It helps them feel that they’re not in this alone.”

“It’s easier to talk to her,” Kaitlin Albrecht said. “I feel like I can say anything to her and she’ll talk to me like she would as a player, but as a friend, too.”

Kaitlin Albrecht was a teammate of Kussow’s last year as a freshman. She would often admire Kussow’s pitching from afar and now she’s up close and personal, getting valuable pitching tips.

“She pitched almost every game last year and I could see she gave it her all every game, and I looked up to that,” Kaitlin Albrecht said. “I just wanted to play my heart out and leave everything on the field just like she did.”

Cory Albrecht has watched the young pitchers form a tight bond with Kussow as the season has progressed. The three pitchers are very coachable, which makes it easier for Kussow.

“She’s just a sounding board, really,” Albrecht said. “Girls are asking, ‘What do you see?’ And she can give pointers here and there; she’s got enough experience. The things that she does with those girls mentally, emotionally and dealing with the stress of being young girls with a fairly senior-dominated team and being the focal point of your pitching staff, is hard for young girls. But she’s kind of been that bridge between her classmates, which are seniors, and then the younger girls.”

Kussow doesn’t like to be pushy working with the pitchers. She likes to just give them some advice on what see she’s on their mechanics and fundamentals.

“She knows what she’s talking about, and she can see what we’re doing wrong, so she lets us know,” Kaitlin Albrecht said. “I take it to heart and I improve on that.”

Early in the season, Kussow sat in the dugout during games, watched the pitchers do their thing and spoke with the them between innings. With a pair of nonconference games against Peshtigo and Oconto on April 29, Kussow was given expanded responsibilities, calling pitches for both games. Kussow consulted coach Albrecht a couple of times, but she called two solid games.

“She did a really nice job,” coach Albrecht said. “I said, ‘You’re almost doing too good of a job.’”

Kussow is planning to go into law enforcement for a career, but she might get an itch to also become a softball coach. For now, she’s just trying to help her former teammates succeed.

“I think it’s really rewarding,” Kussow said. “Me not being on the field, I love to see their success. And I kind of live through them.”