Once Bishop McNamara’s softball season ended with a fourth-place finish at the IHSA Class 3A State Finals, sisters Kenna and Kara Kleinert knew their time to play softball together was limited.
Kenna graduated in May, and Kara is headed toward her senior year, which means this summer was their last to play competitive softball together. So, the two decided to make the most of their limited time with a trip to Europe.
As part of an organization called America’s Team, and in conjunction with ACIS Educational Tours, the Kleinerts played in four games during the latter half of June — three in the Netherlands and one in Belgium. They played the Dutch junior national team twice, a game against a Dutch club team and a game against the Belgian national team, finishing the trip with a 2-2 record.
“With our team, we toured every day, going to different cities and touring them with our tour guide,” Kenna said. “And then at night, we would go play the other teams.
This trip was a couple years in the making. Two summers ago, the girls went to a softball camp run by arguably the sport’s greatest player of all time, Jennie Finch, in Florida.
There, they caught the eye of Finch’s former United States teammate Laura O’Brien-Amico, who coaches America’s Team. After meeting the girls, O’Brien-Amico asked them if they would like to play overseas.
Before touching down in the Netherlands, the Kleinerts hadn’t met any of their teammates, girls who came from 10 other states to form the team. But it didn’t take long for them to make friends.
“Just meeting all the girls, that was really cool,” Kenna said. “You don’t get to do that all the time — just travel and play softball.”
Kara said she noticed a stark contrast in the competitiveness of school and travel softball stateside as opposed to the relaxed environment they were in while playing exhibition games.
“I just wanted to go there and see everything, how different it is,” Kara said. “It’s different here — when we play, we have pressure, but over there, it was just having fun with the girls and a lot more relaxed.”
Kenna agreed with her sister that it was a more relaxed atmosphere, but it wasn’t anything she would have traded for the state run the Irish made this spring.
“School ball, with the group we had this year, meant a lot more to us,” Kenna said. “But it was cool going overseas and meeting these girls that were super-cool.”
As a part of their visit, the team checked out a Dutch high school that was in session — summer breaks are much shorter there — and got to see similarities and differences they had to American schools, with one big difference to Kara.
“They don’t have sports teams, they don’t play other schools,” Kara said. “If they wanted to play a sport, they’d have to join a club or travel team, and their age group [for club and travel] is ages 18-35.”
As the lone pair of sisters on the squad, the Kleinerts caught the attention of their teammates and coaches.
“All the other girls said they thought it was pretty cool,” Kenna said of playing with her sister. “And the coaches said they could see that connection we have.”
Now that they’re back, Kenna is preparing for her first year at Kankakee Community College, and Kara is getting ready for her final prep year at McNamara.
For Kara, having one last softball event with her big sister is something she’ll cherish as she prepares to adjust to softball without Kenna in the dugout with her.
“It was pretty cool just to play with her one more time in something big,” Kara said. “But it’s going to be hard not playing with her in school ball because she was a big part of me.”
Vickery shines in Colorado Sparkler, National All-Star game
The Kleinerts’ former teammate and Kenna’s classmate, recent graduate Jaelyn Vickery, hasn’t let a busy schedule at the University of Illinois stop her from enjoying a final summer of travel softball.
Vickery traveled during the Fourth of July holiday to the Colorado Sparkler in Boulder, where her Iowa Premier 18U team finished tied for ninth out of 85 teams.
“I have played in this tournament the past four years and it has by far been my favorite,” Vickery said. “From exploring the mountains, to the kind people there, to hitting lots of dingers ... [the Premier Girls Fastpitch National Tournament in] California is awesome, but there is something more pure about Colorado.”
Aside from the tournament, Vickery also was selected as a Triple Crown Sports all-star and played in the nationally televised Future Stars game that was played July 3.
As a soon-to-be freshmen at Illinois, along with recent Herscher graduate Morgan Scivally, Vickery said she met a few fellow Big Ten players in the game.
“That was an awesome experience meeting other college-bound players,” Vickery said. “I made friends with a couple future Big Ten players, but I made sure to tell them this wasn’t going to be the case when I see them later on the field.”
Ironically, Vickery and Scivally will be heading to Europe for their own trip with the Illini next month, setting foot in the Netherlands, Belgium, England and France.
“We literally can’t contain our excitement,” Vickery said.
“Our coach called us all individually if we wanted to go, and I was like, ‘Obviously — who wouldn’t want to go play in Europe?’”
Like any good former teammates would, the Kleinert sisters offered Vickery and Scivally some words of wisdom as they prepare for their trip.
“The Kleinerts said they had a blast over there and that playing foreign teams was an incredible experience,” Vickery said. “They also warned me not to get ran over in Amsterdam — I guess things are very busy over there.”