The email Caty Lieseke received last Thursday from the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) was one of the more surprising things that’s happened to her recently.
The NFHS, which writes the rules of competition for most high school sports in the nation, was informing her that she had been selected as its Washington state Softball Coach of the Year.
“I was like, ‘What!?’” Lieseke said. “That was just not on my radar of anything that would ever be in the conversation.”
It was a surprising turn of events, especially considering the 2020 softball season was cancelled statewide in mid-March. Lieseke figures it was due to the Bearcats being one of the preseason favorites to contend for the Class 2A state title. The team had eight seniors coming back, many of which are now playing in college, including Ashlyn Whalen, who is now playing for Division-I power Boise State, and Ava Fugate, who is now at Colorado Mesa, just to name a couple. And it was those eight seniors that Lieseke texted on Friday with news of the award.
“Just to say, ‘I’m missing you, I’m thinking of you and this is really a testament to the whole program of work,’” Lieseke said. “We stood out enough, even without playing any games, which is pretty cool for that group of girls and coaching staff.”
Lieseke has been a part of two state champion Bearcat teams, in 2015 and 2017, as an assistant for now-retired Mike Keen. Keen had built the Bearcats into a perennial powerhouse, racking up 333 wins, three state titles and 14 consecutive trips to state in his 15 seasons at the helm.
When Keen retired in spring 2017, W.F. West athletic director Jeff Johnson knew Lieseke, who had been an assistant for five years at that point, was the right person to take over the program.
“We knew she’d be a nice choice to take over when Mike was ready to go out to pasture,” Johnson said. “She’s been tearing it up ever since.”
Lieseke’s transition was nearly seamless. The Bearcats placed third in state her first season as head coach in 2018 and improved with a second-place finish at state in 2019. It seemed like the natural progression would mean state title time in 2020. Instead, she’ll have to settle for her new award.
Johnson said Lieseke might be the first W.F. West coach to win Coach of the Year by the NFHS. Lieseke’s award was won against softball coaches from all classifications in the state, from Class 1B to Class 4A, nearly 300 high schools in total.
“We’re real happy for her,” Johnson said. “It doesn’t just happen by a stroke of luck. It’s neat to see hard work pay off for good people.”
Lieseke, who is also a math teacher in the Chehalis School District, is able to transcend her teaching from the classroom to the field, Johnson said, which is what makes her so effective in both regards.
“She’s got that innate balance of breaking down skill sets and fundamentals,” Johnson said. “How she delivers a lesson in the classroom just rolls out onto the fastpitch field. She can do it all with a smile. She’s got an innate way of pushing kids without veins popping out and screaming. It’s fun to watch her work.”
It’s also not the only big news Lieseke has received recently. On Sept. 22, Lieseke was selected to Whitworth College’s All-Decade Team after a standout career for the Pirates from 2008-11 where she was an all-league catcher.
For Lieseke, the Coach of the Year award is more a reflection of the entire program; the players, the assistant coaches and the community support, rather than a celebration of anything she accomplished.
“This isn’t just me, this is a whole collection of a lot of people,” Lieseke said. “It’s been a really crazy experience ever since I moved here. The whole coaching staff is a part of this. This is something that should go out to all the girls. It’s a community recognition, not just a me recognition.”