“I have so much passion for this game, I just want to play. So I’ll do anything it takes.”
When Leah Kipfer says that about softball, she means it. A broken ankle isn’t going to keep her down.
The Southwestern Community College sophomore pitcher and first baseman from Albia was on her way to completing a spectacular career as a Spartan when her season took a detour on April 15.
The team returned to Creston after a scheduled game at Grand View University in Des Moines was rained out.
“We got back around 2:30,” coach Lindsay Stumpff recalled. “They were bored. Some of them went over to the Y.”
That seemingly harmless decision changed the course of Kipfer’s sophomore season. The former all-conference basketball player was just killing time with some friends.
“We decided to go to the Y and play a little basketball,” Kipfer said. “Three of us were softball girls, and a couple guys. We were just shooting around. I did kind of a jump shot, came down and rolled my ankle. I ended up breaking my fibula, but I didn’t know that at the time.”
All she knew for sure was that she had some unpleasant news for coach Stumpff. But, first things first. She had to make the walk west to the dorms.
“I couldn’t stand on it,” Kipfer said. “(Teammates) Sami Borland and Taylor Powers put me around their shoulders and took me to the elevator. I one-leg hopped to the dorm, holding onto them.”
Stumpff was skeptical when first receiving the news that evening.
“I got a text saying, ‘coach, I got some bad news.’ This is a team full of pranksters, and they like to mess with me a little bit,” Stumpff said. “She said she rolled her ankle. I said this is not the time to be messing around with me, so just tell me if you are. Then she said, no, she’s being serious.”
When Stumpff arrived later in Kipfer’s dorm room, she realized just how serious.
“It kept on hurting,” Kipfer said. “I had my foot in a bucket of ice when she came over.”
Trainers originally believed it was a bad sprain, while Kipfer took a week off of softball. Finally, with no significant improvement, Kipfer’s family wanted answers.
“My mom took me to Des Moines, and they found out I’d broken my fibula,” Kipfer said.
Doctors wanted to cast it immediately, but delayed that in favor of a walking “boot” since she wanted to try to finish her final season at SWCC.
That diagnosis was made last Friday. Two days later, she was pitching the first four innings against third-ranked Kirkwood, leading 2-1 through three innings. She was wearing a heavy brace on her landing (left) ankle. Third baseman Danyielle Barger and former Creston prep Carla Smith at first helped her on bunt coverage.
A week earlier, when she thought it was simply a sprain, she split duty with Barger in the pitching circle in a 5-4 victory over sixth-ranked DMACC, salvaging a doubleheader split. Barger, a former conference opponent from Centerville, was a backup pitcher in high school.
“Danyielle has been awesome,” Kipfer said.
Courtney Wagner, sophomore from Ottumwa, has shouldered the bulk of the pitching load since the injury. This year, with continued improvement by Kipfer in the circle, the plan for the regional tournament beginning Sunday in Fort Dodge is for Kipfer and Wagner to share time, hoping to keep opponents off balance.
“Just two or three good innings from Leah will take some pressure off of Courtney,” Stumpff said. “It also gives hitters a different look through the game. Leah was smoking before the injury.”
She is 5-5 as a pitcher with a 2.46 ERA for Southwestern, which enters the postseason at 22-14 and 15-11 in the league the third seed. She has 103 strikeouts, 27 walks and 60 hits allowed in 71 innings.
As the team’s cleanup hitter and first baseman when not pitching, Kipfer was batting .424 with three home runs and 16 RBI in 61 at-bats, before the injury eliminated that part of her game, as she is unable put enough weight on her left foot to bat and run to first.
“I would have never thought I’d have to DH for Leah Kipfer,” Stumpff said, shaking her head.
Last year was a breakthrough campaign for both the Spartans and Kipfer, selected last week as the 2013 recipient of the Ron “Fox” Clinton Female Athlete of the Year at Southwestern.
Kipfer, Barger and 2012 Athlete of the Year winner Londen Miller all surpassed the previous hits record as Southwestern reached a school record in victories at 43-21. Kipfer batted .432 with a team-high 82 hits, eight home runs and 68 RBI in 57 games.
As a pitcher, she was 15-11 with a 3.14 ERA.
This year, with so many cancellations to weather, the offensive numbers haven’t been as high, but she’s been more effective in the pitching circle.
“The first three or four doubleheaders in conference, she had games of double-digit strikeouts,” Stumpff said. “I think the longer you are in this league, you grow and mentally you begin to think a little more about what you need to do out there.”
For Kipfer, who was first discovered by Stumpff while pitching in a 1-0 loss to Creston and all-state pitcher Madison Frain in Creston as a junior, it’s been an evolution.
“I got more movement,” Kipfer said. “When I came to college they taught me new pitches. In the second year, I learned how to control them and what I needed to do differently. You start to learn what batters like.”
It’s that career production, and dedication, that makes Kipfer a deserving recipient of the college’s top athletic award, Stumpff says.
This is a team with several sophomore standouts. Outfielder Ashley Brandt is the league’s leading hitter at .539. Barger is a power-hitting force, and shortstop Hannah Sneed has been a leader at a key position for two years.
Then there are all sophomores in other Spartan sports to consider.
But nobody is arguing the choice of Kipfer, daughter of Tim and Teresa Kipfer of Albia.
“I had a team full of people I could have pushed for it,” Stumpff said. “Many of them would have had a good shot at it, as well. With Leah, I think it’s based on the year she had last year, setting records. She’s deserving, and definitely now that she’s pitching on a broken ankle. That just shows she’ll do whatever it takes to help her team.”
Interested in nursing, Kipfer said she’s been accepted at Southwestern and Indian Hills near her hometown. But she is also considering an offer by College of St. Marys, which is interested in her as a softball player, as well.
“Nursing and softball both take a lot of time,” Kipfer said. “I think I’d like to play, if I could I could make it work.”
But first, there’s that minor issue to overcome, like a broken ankle.