It was the summer between Hannah Leppek’s sophomore and junior year and she was coming off a less-than-spectacular high school season.
The Bay City Western pitcher, who had dominated hitters ever since she took the mound in elementary school, was just a few steps above ordinary — totally unacceptable by her standards.
Then she began playing summer travel ball and things went from bad to worse.
She hadn’t played summer ball in two years, and the same players she thrashed in 12-under play were now teeing off on her like it was batting practice in 14u ball.
“I almost quit,” she said. “I’m ashamed to say that.”
No one would have blamed Leppek — a 4.1 student who scored 28 on the ACT — had she quit the only sport she was allowed to play after a series of four knee surgeries. Those surgeries twice forced her to miss a year of competition, spending more time on crutches than on a pitcher’s mound.
“Mentally, I couldn’t catch up,” she said. “With my pitching, I didn’t have as much practice with as many pitches. They were so much better hitters. It was all shocking to me. I didn’t know how to take it that I wasn’t the top. It was a rough mental summer because it’s such a mental game. It ripped me apart every weekend.”
Julie Tolfree — who with her husband, Art, coached Leppek in the summer — watched her protégé struggle when she wasn’t even the team’s No. 1 pitcher. Finally, after an exceptionally rough weekend, she took the youngster onto the outfield grass for a heart-to-heart talk.
“Do you sit in that dugout sometimes when that other pitcher is pitching and hope that they do bad?” Tolfree asked.
When Leppek nodded, Tolfree said: “That is totally normal.”
Leppek looked up and forced a smile. For the previous five years, nothing had been normal for someone who had been the best at everything she tried.
But now it’s Leppek’s senior year and once again she has risen to the top, pitching Western to the No. 4 spot in the Division 1 rankings as the Warriors attempt to advance to the state championship game for the second straight season.
This season she is 15-1 with 132 strikeouts in 78 innings and a 0.89 ERA. She is also hitting .500 with five home runs and 22 RBIs and has signed with Detroit Mercy.
It has been a difficult road back for Leppek. To fully understand her situation, you need to know how dominant she was as a youngster. Name the sport — basketball, volleyball, softball — and Leppek was the best in her age group.
But Leppek began experiencing knee pain in the fifth grade and a year later learned she had Achilles tendonitis in her left ankle and Osgood-Schlatter disease, which is painful but not debilitating, in her left knee. X-rays also revealed a stress fracture in her right knee, but no action was taken. That is when her problems really began.
“Even though it did hurt I pushed through it and I kept pushing through it,” Leppek said. ” I waited until the end of softball season — the end of the summer — and it was to the point I almost couldn’t walk and the stress fracture got worse and worse.”
In seventh grade, Leppek was diagnosed with osteochondritis dissecans (OCD) in her right knee. OCD limits the blood flow causing a bone in the knee to become brittle and break. She stopped playing all sports and doctors at the University of Michigan drilled holes in her knee to increase the blood supply.
The hope was the bone would heal and grow back together, but that didn’t work and at the end of her seventh grade year she went to U-M for a second surgery.
Leppek played softball as an eighth grader but midway through her freshman year her knee grew worse. The family then found Dr. Frank Noyes, a nationally known knee specialist in Cincinnati. He performed another surgery, inserting a large screw into her knee and drilling more holes to help blood flow.
“That one actually was working better,” Leppek said. “But one day I was at a water park and I was just walking into the river and it was an instant pain everywhere. It turns out the whole piece broke off.”
That meant another six-hour drive to Cincinnati for surgery No. 4. This time Dr. Noyes removed bone plugs from the non-weight bearing part of her knee and placed them in the hole in her knee hoping they would heal the knee.
He also told her to forget about playing basketball or volleyball again.
“He said there was a slim, slim, slim chance I could play softball,” Leppek said. “At that point I was used to bad news. It was not what I wanted to hear, obviously.
“I kept my positive attitude. I always knew I would find a way to play some kind of sport. I had even tried swimming my freshman year and I’d never done that before.”
When she entered high school, Leppek wondered if she would be able to compete in athletics at all.
“Many times she’s considered she might not be able to play again, after the surgeries she’s had and some of the setbacks,” said her father, Randy. “When she was told she could play softball again she was ecstatic. There’s still a void in her life because she really loved basketball.”
After missing softball as a freshman, she rejoined the team for her sophomore year and struggled. It became worse that summer and Leppek was a mess.
The mental side of pitching had never been an issue. Leppek simply threw the ball by batter after batter, but in the two years since she had pitched, the hitters improved dramatically and Leppek hadn’t.
“I didn’t know how to cope,” she said. “My coaches, Art and Julie Tolfree, they understood me like no one else could. We had personal talks after tournaments. They’re the reason I didn’t quit. She played college and she was a pitcher and she knew how to handle the mental aspect of that.”
Julie Tolfree convinced Leppek that she was young enough to return to her status as an elite athlete, all she had to do was work hard, which she had done all her life.
“She had never been in that situation before and a not mentally strong person wouldn’t survive that situation, and that’s what makes Hannah so dominant,” Tolfree said. “She has such a strong work ethic and has never accepted failure and that girl has gone through so much.
“That’s what makes a pitcher a pitcher. You can be the best physical specimen, but if you are not mentally tough you’ll never be a pitcher.”
At 5-feet-11, Leppek had the physical tools to dominate again, but she needed to work on her mechanics and improve her fastball.
That led to countless sessions in the gymnasium where she attended elementary school. Her catcher was her father, who was a catcher at Northwood. It was in that gym that Leppek began psyching herself up for her junior season.
“In the winter I kind of got my head back: ‘This is me. I’m not a quitter,’ ” she said. “I felt like I was always going to somehow get back. I had to motivate myself back.”
The speed and movement returned to Leppek’s fastball. Last spring, she led the Warriors to the state finals with a 25-2 record with 237 strikeouts in 150 innings and an ERA below 1.
She also hit .473 with 38 RBIs. And she scored 28 runs, which was quite an accomplishment because Western coach Rick Garlinghouse prefers to have a courtesy runner for her whenever possible.
“I just tell her to go base-to-base,” Garlinghouse said. “I don’t want her sliding. I know for us to be successful I’ve got to have her pitch. I tell her she’s not here to run the bases, she’s here to pitch.”
But her hitting is a big part of Western’s offense. She can hammer the ball with a force that should require a warning label on the ball.
“Seriously, I’m scared for a pitcher,” Garlinghouse said. “She can hit it so hard straight up the middle on a line shot. Unless it’s a good fielding pitcher, I’m afraid she’s going to bop one of them these days. Our fence is 215 (feet) and eight feet tall and the other day she hit a line shot (out) against the wind. That thing only went about 12 feet off the ground.”
Because she missed so much time, Leppek dropped off the radar of major college coaches. She could be a godsend to second-year coach Liz Walther, who is attempting to rebuild the UDM program.
“When you meet her she’s not a force to look at,” Walther said. “She’s a great kid with a great smile and then she gets on the mound with just this whole other presence. I like that she’s got a great movement about her and she’s very coachable. She has the ability to make changes at the drop of a hat, which is important at our level.”
Being able to pitch at the Division I level is a dream come true, but that will have to wait. For now, Leppek is focused on this Western team and becoming the first team to win a state title at softball’s new championship venue — Secchia Stadium at Michigan State.
“I’m going to finish it out this year,” she said, with a nod. “I need to. I know me and my whole team put together have the ability and talent to do it, we just need to prove ourselves. And partly because I’m the kind of person that we made it last and didn’t quite get it, so we have to get it this time.”