Transitioning to college life off of the field of play for a student-athlete, let alone on, is very difficult.
It’s even more difficult to do so when said student-athlete is dealing with an injury.
But if Bre Klaiber’s inaugural campaign with the Long Island University-Post (N.Y.) program was a test of her will, the 2017 Wheelersburg graduate, who starred at middle infield for the Lady Pirates, passed the test with flying colors.
The standout freshman not only played in, but started, all 57 games for the NCAA Division II perennial powerhouse. The standout freshman posted a .383 batting average — second on the team. The standout freshman led the team in doubles (16), walks (22), on-base percentage (.458) and defensive assists (155).
And last, but not least, the standout freshman accomplished all of those goals while leading her team to a 38-19 record and an NCAA Division II Super Regional berth — all while dealing with a torn rotator cuff that forced the freshman to play through intense amounts of pain.
Would Klaiber trade this past season’s experience for anything?
Not a chance.
“I had a great time this season,” Bre said. “I love the team and the coaching staff. Everybody tries to set each other up for success, so I’ve had a lot of fun with it.”
The warrior inside Bre, however, is certainly a quality that her father, Bill, is very familiar with.
The elder Klaiber, a baseball standout at Ironton and then West Virginia State after that, recalled Klaiber, just last year, having surgery on a broken finger where the bone was so badly broken that said bone was sticking out of the nail bed before Wheelersburg’s run to the OHSAA Division III Championship Game in 2017.
“You can’t keep Bre off of the field,” Bill said. “She had surgery the day that the bus was leaving (for Akron), and she almost missed the bus, but she made it on time, traveled up with the team, and played through it.”
Before her time at LIU-Post, Klaiber, who starred at Ironton before transferring to Wheelersburg in her junior season of high school eligibility, immediately made an impact for the Lady Pirates as the 5-5 infielder, along with Michal Cunningham, Kalle Coleman, Faith Howard, and others, guided the Lady Pirates to the OHSAA Division III State Championship in 2016 as Wheelersburg won six of its seven games — including the state final, a 10-3 victory over Canfield South Range, by four runs or more.
Klaiber then combined with Coleman, Howard, Sarah Claxon, Kasey Bergan, Taylor Fannin, Christen Risner, and Brittany Swim, in addition to other key cogs, to aid Wheelersburg in its run to the OHSAA Division III State Finals the following season, and finished her high school career by earning three All-Conference honors (one Ohio Valley Conference, two Southern Ohio Conference) and four All-Southeast District accolades in the sport of softball.
Bre’s personal success and growth in the game, however, is something that her and her father credit largely to Teresa Ruby, who has led Wheelersburg to a regional berth in each of her five seasons with the Lady Pirates.
“(Teresa) Ruby taught me so much, not only from a game standpoint, but from a personal level, as well,” Bre said. “She helped me grow up as a player and as a person, and there really isn’t another coach out there like her. There’s so much that you can take and learn, and I just can’t express in words what all she’s done for me.”
“Teresa’s amazing,” Bill said. “She gets the most out of her players. The repetition that those kids get alone and the quality time that those kids put into the game is similar to a college practice. You’ve got different stations going on and everybody’s working on something all of the time.”
Ruby’s relentless work ethic, and the intense practices that take on a professional club-level type look to them, certainly paid off for Klaiber, who signed with the Pioneers’ softball program in November 2016, in a big way.
However, as Klaiber had already learned during her senior year of high school, the game doesn’t always come without pain.
During the early portion of the 2018 season, Klaiber noticed that it was becoming increasingly difficult to not only throw with her right arm, but to even lift it in a motion to throw. As her freshman campaign got rolling, an evaluation showed that Klaiber was playing with a torn rotator cuff. The amazing part, you ask? How about the young, talented third baseman continuing to play through the intense pain, all season long, without missing a single game.
And excelling at that.
After hovering between a respectable mark — which sat from the .270 to .320 range throughout the Pioneers’ first 10 games of the year — Klaiber’s production took off at the plate following a 5-for-7 effort between a pair of contests against American International (Mass.) on March 17, which rose her average to a .366 clip.
For the rest of the season, Klaiber, whose average never dipped below .346 the rest of the way, proved to be well ahead of the curve of most players her age as the freshman helped lead LIU-Post to a 34-13 record over the squad’s final 47 games after the Pioneers went 4-6 to start the season.
Included in that torrid place was the 2018 East Coast Conference Championship, which LIU-Post won by taking three of four games that it played in the tournament, including a 4-1 victory over rival Molloy (N.Y.) College in the ECC Championship Game, and three straight victories to begin the NCAA Division II Softball Championships, which allowed the Pioneers to take home the NCAA Division II East Region Championship.
For her efforts in leading LIU-Post to the NCAA Division II Super Regionals, Klaiber, with her aforementioned .383 average, along with five home runs, and 38 RBI, was named as the East Coast Conference’s Rookie of the Year for her efforts. Additionally, Klaiber was named as a NFCA/Schutt Sports National Freshman of the Year finalist, as well.
“That’s the amazing thing,” Bill said. “She played with a torn rotator cuff. We thought that it was (a torn) labrum, but when they went in for surgery, they found that the labrum was intact, but had the torn rotator cuff, which was 40 percent torn as it was through two of the first five layers and was going into the third. She had trouble throwing all year long, and she had some throwing errors as a result as she was dealing with the pain.”
“It wasn’t fun,” Bre said. “There were definitely times where I felt like I couldn’t lift my arm or throw another ball, but the trainer that worked with me did a great job, and we stayed on top of it with treatments and ultrasounds, as well as regular stretching and everything in order to try to keep the pain under control. It wasn’t fun at all times, but we made it through Super Regionals and almost made it to the World Series, so it makes all of the pain worth it.”
The success of the unit, however, is one that Klaiber credits unselfishly to Jamie Apicella. After all, as Klaiber is quick to point out, Apicella, with 775 wins, a .704 winning percentage, nine conference championships, and four NCAA Division II World Series appearances in 20 seasons according to the LIU-Post’s athletic website, is among the best in the business.
“(Jamie) Apicella has a really extensive baseball background,” Bre said. “He played in the San Francisco Giants’ organization (in 1994, 33rd round draft pick according to Baseball Reference), so he definitely knows the game. He really sets us up for success and does everything that he possibly can to make sure that we’re where we need to be before the season starts, as well as during it. Whenever we start our season, we’re 10 to 15 games behind everyone else whenever we go down and play in our spring games in Florida, so we have to come out in our first game as if we’re 20 games into the season. There isn’t a coach out there that sets a team up like he does in order to prepare us for that challenge.”
Personally, Klaiber credits her success to the elders who comprise the unit, such as super sophomore Abbey Fortin, a .413 hitter this past season. Fortin, who used her strong 6-0 frame to belt 19 home runs and 65 RBI — all team-highs along with the batting average — was named as the ECC Player of the Year, the ECC Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, and last, but not least, a consensus NCAA Division II All-American.
“It was nice, but honestly, I wouldn’t have been able to accomplish what I did without my teammates,” Bre said. “The person that was ahead of me in batting average (Abbey Fortin) was the conference player of the year and an All-American, so having someone that sets you up for success like that relieves some of the pressure of producing and allows you to just play softball. We, as a team, are just going to try to continue to play our game so that we can set ourselves up for success next year, too.”
With eight of its nine starters — Klaiber among them — back for 2019 — the potential to match Apicella’s banner year, that being a 50-11 mark with an ECC Championship and a NCAA World Series berth, is certainly there.
However, to accomplish the latter, a goal that hasn’t been obtained in five years, Klaiber understands that it will take more than just replacing the starting production left behind from 2018 in order to reach those heights.
And that may very well be the very best quality in a student-athlete that is full of winning intangibles.
“It’s so exciting,” Bre said. “We’ve got a great group of freshmen that are coming in as well to replace the one starter that is departing (Gianna Gatto). However, we’re not only losing a key piece of our starting lineup, we’re losing four seniors (Gatto, Jaclyn Hahn, Marisa San Antonio, Claire Travis) that were excellent leaders, and we’ll have to replace that leadership that will be left behind. It’s not always easy, but we have a great freshman group coming in and a great set of sophomores and juniors that will be upperclassmen now. We have a great shot at contending for a World Series berth. It’s so exciting, and I can’t wait to get back out on the field next spring.”