It was a harmless-looking flair over the infield, headed for shallow center field, one shortstop Kristina Mueller had gone back on dozens, perhaps hundreds of times during her softball career. But this time, the last thing the Ridge High School senior remembers is making a lunge for the ball before waking up to the trainer attending to her on the outfield grass.
Mueller’s collision with her center fielder last Wednesday at North Hunterdon resulted in a concussion that, more than likely, has ended her season, and with it a varsity career that’s become increasingly rare in recent years. In the age of specialization, high-stakes quests for college scholarships and a whole world of distractions, three-sport high school athletes are going the way of the cassette players, snail mail and the North African White Rhino, and Mueller is one of only a handful left on the local scene.
A four-year starter and star softball player, a four-year letterwinner and three-year basketball starter, and a three-year letterwinner for Ridge’s elite soccer program, nobody has worn the green and white more often and with as much success over the past four year as has Mueller. And, despite everything she’s sacrificed and all the hard work it’s required, looking back, she wouldn’t have had it any other way.
“When I was in middle school, everyone told me, going into high school, there’s no way you can play three sports,” said Mueller, who is committed to play softball at Rowan University next year. “You have to be dedicated to one or you can’t excel in it. But I could never pick a sport because I love them all so much and they’re all so different. And I guess I wanted to prove to people that I could play the three sports. I admit, I gave up a lot. I gave up a lot of time, I gave up my summers, but it was definitely worth it. Every team has been different. It’s 12 season and 12 different groups of girls, and I enjoyed every single second of it, and there’s not one thing that I regret.”
The speedy Mueller was bred to be an athlete, particularly a softball player. Her father and brothers played baseball competitively, and her dad even toiled on the diamond of the University of Western Kentucky.
Mueller, who played two years of t-ball, started playing softball competitively in middle school, competing on a travel team her father coached and even winning a championship. She has been Ridge’s top softball player since her arrival, and even though the program struggled through four losing seasons, it continued to have a special place in her heart.
“Because it’s my main sport and because I’ve played it my entire life, even if we weren’t winning, just being able to play on the team is something I love, no matter how we do,” said Mueller, who won just 17 games during her four-year varsity softball career. “I just love softball that much.”
“Kristina is our ‘Go-to’ on the team,” said Ridge softball coach Cherie Howarth, who watched Mueller collect 93 career hits. “At the beginning of the season, I allowed the girls to vote for two people they think have exemplified the definition of a leader. Every single person on the team voted for Mueller. Girls look up to her and want to follow what she does. I believe that her participation in three sports has molded her into an even better athlete and teammate. She has that ‘Can-do’ attitude and there is nothing she can’t do on the field.”
In fourth grade, she began playing basketball, and has continued to play hoops with the same group of girls ever since. With Mueller as captain, Ridge enjoyed its best season during her time this past winter, going 18-9 and finishing just one game from a conference title.
“Kristina is one of the most competitive athletes that I have coached, and played an integral role in the success of the Ridge girls basketball program,” said Eric Schroeder, who assigned the forward to always guard the opposing team’s best player, regardless of position. “She is tough, aggressive, athletic, and always gives 100 percent, whether at practice or games. She was a great captain for our team and her work ethic set a great example of what it takes to be a success not only in basketball, but in three varsity sports.”
“With basketball, because it was the girls I’ve been playing with my whole life, I trusted them,” Mueller said. “And even if we didn’t do that well, since we had played together so much, I knew that we could fix any of the problems we had.”
Soccer came last for Mueller. She played rec as early as fifth grade, but didn’t start playing competitive until eighth grade. By the time she reached her sophomore season in high school, she had become good enough to make the Red Devils, a team that is one of the state’s most elite programs.
Although she already had plenty on her athletic plate, Mueller said because the soccer team was so good, she just wanted to be a part of it and the experience was amazing. She played forward and midfield, going to the state Group IV soccer final as a sophomore, and helped win the prestigious Somerset County championship as a junior.
“When Kristina was coming back from injury her junior year for soccer, I was nervous putting her back in because she only knows how to play one way, and that is full tilt,” Ridge girls soccer coach Katie Donahue said. “She puts forth an amazing amount of energy and effort every moment she’s on the field. She’s been an absolute pleasure to coach and so much fun to watch compete. What she lacks for in particular skill set for the specialized training often now focused on for the sports, she makes up for with raw athleticism.”
“A lot of girls would play one sport and they would get burned out from it,” Mueller said. “I never got burned out from any of the sports, and at the end of every season I was so excited to start the next one and change it up a little bit. There were always times when maybe a season was getting tough or something and I got tired. Like, the softball team has always struggled and sometimes that was difficult. But I never really thought about quitting a team because I don’t even know what I would do with myself. I would be so bored. I love being busy.”
Mueller will wear another school’s uniform for the first time next year, but her heart will always be at Ridge. And while the years will go on and new players will take her place, athletes like her are few and far between and it’s clear her presence on the field is missed already.
“Not having her playing right now has been very strange for the whole team,” Howarth said. “She has been with me at the varsity level for the last four years, and I have naturally relied on her to get things done. I never realized the impact she has, not only on her teammates, but on me, until she got hurt. I have had the pleasure of watching Kristina grow as an athlete and a young woman from her freshman year. I am sure that all her coaches would agree that if you could have a team full of Kristina Muellers, it would be your dream team.”
Simeon Pincus can be reached at CourierSoftball@aol.com and on Twitter @SimeonPincus