McKenna Larsen caps strong college career

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Former Oconto Falls grad was a standout in softball and volleyball

Greg Bates, Times Herald Correspondent

McKenna Larsen was a standout on the mound for Winona State. (Photo courtesy Winona State Athletics)

Over his 17 years as head coach of the Winona State University softball program, Greg Jones has worked with some great players.

When he thinks of the legacy McKenna Larsen leaves after a phenomenal four-year run, Jones has high praise.

“If there’s a Mount Rushmore of Winona State softball, she’s on it,” Jones said. “So, if there are four faces and names that go on that, she would be one of the four. I would have a really tough discussion on who the other three are, but she’s got to be one of them. What she did for us as a pitcher, what she did for us as a hitter, what she did for us as a leader, she’s truly one of the top five kids to ever play in this program.”

And, rightfully so. Larsen wrapped up her collegiate career May 11 by etching her name into the record books at the Division II college in Minnesota. Her 56-14 career record as a pitcher gives her the fifth-best winning percentage, .800, in program history. Larsen also ends up with the seventh-best ERA in school history at 1.56. She only surrendered 98 earned runs in 439⅓ innings. Larsen was also a .341 career hitter at the plate with 224 hits and 147 RBI.

Larsen, who is a 2014 Oconto Falls High School graduate, wasn’t just a softball star at Winona State but also a standout volleyball player. She earned All-American status in both sports.

“I still can’t believe I was an All-American, to be honest,” Larsen said. “I dreamed of it since my sister was, but to be that in two sports is pretty incredible.

“A lot of people have said, ‘You’re one of the best athletes that has come out of Winona State.’ I just can’t really believe that. But my career’s over, and it’s very humbling.”

Larsen’s individual accolades are beyond impressive, but she has always only been concerned about her team’s performance. The Warriors had a phenomenal run this season, winning the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference (NSIC) regular season and playoff titles and were ranked No. 1 in the Central Region. Winona State had a great shot at reaching the Division II national championships, but the Warriors were upset twice in the regional playoffs. The team ended up a record of 45-7.

“I still can’t believe it’s over, to be honest,” Larsen said. “It was going so good and the conference tournament, we had so much excitement and then how it abruptly ended. It was a shock to all of us. It was a bad weekend to not play the best.”

Winona State was riding a high heading into the national tournament after winning the NSIC tournament crown in dramatic fashion May 5. And, of course, Larsen was at the center of all the fireworks.

With the Warriors down 5-3 entering the bottom of the seventh inning in the championship game against Augustana, the Winona State players weren’t worried. Larsen stepped to the plate with her team trailing by one run with the bases loaded and one out. With the count 3-2, Larsen got a pitch right down the middle and lined it over the right-field fence. Larsen circled the bases sporting a smile from ear to ear and her hands clinched. As she rounded third base and received a high-five from her coach, Larsen was mobbed at home plate by her teammates. The walk-off grand slam gave Winona State the conference title.

“That was by far the best experience of my sports life I would say,” Larsen said. “I was just thinking about getting a sac fly to tie up the game. I knew they were going to pitch inside, and I was like, ‘All right, I’m going to be ready for it this time,’ because I wasn’t previously. It’s so cool. And to see some of the pictures that have come from it and the videos, I can’t even describe the feeling I had that day.”

“You really can’t write that script up any better.”

Coach Jones said Larsen was clutch her entire career. Nothing epitomized Larsen’s clutch nature more than that conference-winning grand slam.

“That’s the very definition of it in the dictionary,” Jones said. “There could be a picture of that home run. She got every bit of that, and there was just nobody else you wanted up in that spot. All year, her ability to drive in runs with two outs and to extend innings and start rallies with two outs was just amazing.”

Larsen, who was a four-year starter on offense and was the team’s top pitcher the final three years, had a breakout senior season at the plate. She hit a career-high .408 with three home runs and 43 runs driven in. Larsen recorded a .551 slugging percentage and hit .476 with two outs.

In the circle, Larsen led a young pitching staff. She finished 18-5, allowing just 42 earned runs in 148⅓ innings of work for a 1.98 ERA.

“Offensively, it was one of the best seasons I’ve had,” Larsen said. “Pitching-wise, I did well, but it was hard to repeat last year with almost having a sub-1.00 ERA. We only lost seven games, so overall it was a very good season. Unfortunately, I would have liked to continue it in Salem, but there’s nothing we can do about it. It went fast, but I’m so happy I got the chance to play there.”

For all Larsen did for the program, Jones had a tough time pinpointing in which area his star player was more impactful: as a pitcher or hitter.

“It’s really hard to say which one, because we aren’t the team we are without her on the mound,” Jones said. “I think her biggest numerical impact came offensively, just because of the numbers she put up. One of her offensive numbers that just blows me away: with runners on third base with less than two outs, she hit .647. I mean, that’s mind-numbing. And it’s not like it was a small sample size, 3 for 5 doing it. She was 11 for 17.”

If Jones was pressed to decide how to best utilize Larsen as a player, he knows which route he would take.

“If I could say, ‘OK, you can only do one thing for us all year,’ I would still want to put her on the mound every day because of her demeanor on the mound, her success on the mound and the fact that she gave our team a chance a win every time she had the ball in her hand,” Jones said. “In our game, that can’t be undervalued.”

When Larsen headed to Winona as a freshman and decided to play both volleyball and softball, it was a challenge only she could overcome. Larsen made an immediate impact on the court and was named an American Volleyball Coaches Association All-American after her junior season. Larsen followed that up the next spring by being named Fast Pitch All-American honorable mention.

Coach Jones didn’t know if Larsen could juggle both sports and still be a strong softball player.

“Honestly, I thought that would hurt her a little bit because I thought all the offseason time all the rest of our kids are getting that she’s not going to get was probably going to hold her back,” Jones said. “But to her credit, it absolutely never did.”

Larsen’s play on the diamond wasn’t affected in any way by her play on the court.

“I think the month we had over winter break, I really started to prepare for softball. And in the summer, I did things for both sports,” said Larsen, who was named Winona State’s Female Athlete of the Year earlier this month. “All sports go together, and you can develop so many different aspects of the game and I think that really helped me. Hard work is what it takes.”

Now that her collegiate sports career is over, Larsen is looking forward to tackling the next stage of her life. She graduated from Winona State on May 4 – she actually had to miss the commencement ceremony due to the conference tournament. Larsen earned a degree in movement science with a minor in psychology.

With the dream of becoming a physical therapist, Larsen looked into colleges for grad school. She ended up on the waiting list at Indiana State University. One week before the regional softball tournament this year, Larsen received an email from Indiana State saying she had been accepted into the physical therapy program.

“It’s a tough program to get into,” Larsen said. “Only 30 students from each cohort class, so to be one of them is pretty awesome.”

Larsen will head to Terre Haute, Indiana, for the three-year program to earn her doctorate degree.

“I’m excited for the opportunity and ready to advance my education even more,” Larsen said.

Reflecting back on her four years at Winona State, Larsen knows she left it all out on the court and diamond. No regrets, just like it should be.

“I accomplished so much and probably a lot more than I ever thought could be possible,” Larsen said. “Obviously, it ends too soon and only one team is happy at the end of the year. But I think throughout the four years, I accomplished a lot and I’m so thankful and blessed for that.”