SEBEWAING – Steve Bohn was not coaching in 2010 when he dropped by the Bauer farm to deliver seed and noticed a young girl pitching to someone in the yard.
Bohn stopped as he backed down the driveway and was impressed with the youngster in several ways.
“I remember thinking: ‘You know, you just don’t see that much in the middle of the day in the summer, a girl out in the yard pitching,’ ” Bohn said. “I thought: ‘That little girl throws pretty good.’ ”
That little girl is Nikki Bauer, who was in the sixth grade at the time.
Today, Bohn is the softball coach at No. 2 Unionville-Sebewaing Area (USA), and Bauer is the ace pitcher for the defending Division 4 state champs.
Better yet, next season Bauer will be pitching at Stanford.
Bauer is believed to be the first softball player from Michigan to sign with Stanford, and how a girl from the state’s thumb area will wind up in Palo Alto, Calif., is more than just a story about luck.
First and foremost, it is a story of a student good enough to be accepted at Stanford, whether or not she could tell the difference between a softball and a cantaloupe. The school’s salutatorian, Bauer has a 4.006 grade-point average and scored 33 on the ACT. (36 is perfect.)
The day Bohn spotted Bauer in the yard six years ago she was pitching to her mother, who didn’t last long as Bauer’s catcher.
“That was actually the first and last time she caught for me,” Bauer said, smiling. “I hit her, and she was done.”
Renee Bauer put away the catcher’s mitt after one bullpen session.
“She threw too fast for me,” she said. “She hit me, and I rolled on the ground for 20 minutes. Oh, my gosh.”
Bauer might have been too fast for her mother, but she was anything but an elite age-group pitcher then. She was even cut from a local travel team when she first began to pitch.
“I was 10, and my Little League team lost all of our pitchers,” Bauer said. “My mom was like: ‘Well, you can pitch, we’ll take you to lessons.’ ”
That began a journey of coaches from which Bauer learned the finer points of pitching, beginning with Krista Sheppard and then on to Dennis Geno, the late Charles Fobbs and finally Pat Brower.
“I grew and got stronger and less awkward,” said Bauer, 5 feet 11. “And I’ve had a lot of great pitching coaches.”
Each coach brought expertise, and Bauer began to blossom. Sheppard worked on Bauer’s form, and Geno perfected the different spins on the ball.
For years Fobbs, who died in a 2013 automobile accident, was the softball coach and defensive coordinator for the football team at Detroit Cass Tech before becoming a softball assistant at Michigan State.
“He told me: “Momma, I got big plans for your kid,’ ” Renee said. “And then he passed away. He was bigger than life. We talk about him at least once a week.”
For the past four years, Bauer has been the protégé of Brower, 78, who lives in Ypsilanti and has been coaching pitchers for more than three decades.
Girls come from as far away as the Upper Peninsula for a 1-hour lesson with Brower, who doesn’t want any credit for helping Bauer land her scholarship to Stanford.
“No. 1, she’s a very intelligent girl, so she took to the coaching really well,” he said. “Like any coach will probably tell you, you can say all you want and teach them all you can teach, but it means nothing unless the person works, and she has such a tremendous work ethic she has made herself just a great pitcher.”
Bauer is a tireless worker — and you don’t need to be a genius to know where her work ethic comes from.
Jim and Renee Bauer live on a 1,100-acre farm, where they grow sugar beets, corn, navy beans, red beans and wheat. Bauer and younger sister Lexi spend countless hours helping around the farm with chores like bailing hay and caring for the horses.
“When they are asked about it, they try to blow it off that they don’t have to do all that stuff but, yeah, they do,” said their mother. “They carry water out to the barn at 5 o’clock in the morning in the wintertime.”
The same work ethic Bauer displays working the farm comes shining through in the classroom.
“I love school; I like to learn,” she said. “I’d rather not do homework, but I like to learn. My parents really pushed academics above everything. They were very supportive and helpful with my homework, and I just kept on it myself.”
The first indication that Bauer might be scary-smart came when she was 4, quietly sitting at the dining room table when she asked her mom to listen to her.
She recited her ABCs … backward.
Her mother was stunned and asked her when she learned to do that.
“Oh, just sitting here,” she said.
That was the last time her parents were surprised by her brainpower.
“That’s kind of how she rolls,” her mother said. “We never looked at her being smart. We looked at her as being her normal.”
By the time Bauer reached high school, she was making her mark as a pitcher. As a sophomore, she notched a save in the Division 3 semifinal, but gave up two runs in the final and lost to Gladstone, 2-1, as USA finished 40-1.
“It was terrible,” she said. “We were undefeated until then, and we didn’t know how to experience a loss.”
Last spring, Bauer pitched a four-hitter in the semifinals, then capped off an amazing season with a one-hitter in a 5-0 victory over Kalamazoo Christian to claim the state title.
“It was amazing,” Bauer said. “I can’t even describe how exciting it was.”
Entering Thursday’s game at Ubly, Bauer was 11-3 this season with a 0.60 ERA and 122 strikeouts in 81 innings, four no-hitters and nine shutouts.
Career-wise, she was 72-5 with a 0.50 ERA and 578 strikeouts in 459 innings, 12 no-hitters and 43 shutouts.
Bohn said Bauer combines excellent velocity with pinpoint location, making it difficult for opponents to make good contact.
“She hits her spots, she’s got good movement, and she tops out probably at 65-66 m.p.h.,” he said. “When you miss your spots a little bit or don’t have your location, you can make a few more mistakes when you throw that fast.”
Despite her impressive junior season, college coaches were not clamoring for her services. The problem was few colleges knew her, even after winning a state title.
“If you play locally, you’re not going to be seen,” Brower said. “Colleges really don’t go searching for kids, they have specific-grade, high-level tournaments that they go to, and if you’re not a part of that, it’s hard to be seen.”
Bauer was surprised to learn that even though she had just completed her junior season, many colleges were finished recruiting players from the class of 2016.
“I was exposed really late,” she said, “and schools recruit really early.”
Bauer had some lower-level scholarship offers, but things began to change when she had a highlight video made and joined the premier Finesse travel team.
Once college coaches saw Bauer pitch at elite summer tournaments, she was labeled a late-bloomer, but that isn’t entirely accurate.
“She’s the kind of kid that improves every year, so that part is the late-blooming part,” Brower said. “But exposure was the No. 1 thing.”
The big break came when Stanford saw Bauer’s highlight video. The coaching staff had just completed its first season and still needed a pitcher for the class of 2016 — one who could meet the school’s rigorous academic standards for admittance.
Stanford coaches first saw Bauer pitch in person in Colorado, then attended another tournament. Then the phone calls began.
“We really didn’t think they were really interested,” Renee said. “They called us a couple of times, but who would think Stanford?”
Who, indeed. After all, Stanford was interested in a girl from the Thumb? It seemed preposterous.
In early August, Bauer was scheduled to play participating in a tournament in Chino Hills, Calif., and the Stanford coaches asked Bauer to visit the school. It was a 7-hour drive to Palo Alto, and mom wanted no part of that trip.
“Nikki, they’re not going to be interested in you,” Renee said. “Are you sure you want to do this?”
Bauer was more than sure.
“Oh, Mom,” she said. “It’s an opportunity of a lifetime.”
The three Stanford coaches took the Bauers on a tour of the campus, and when they returned to coach Rachel Hanson’s office, she asked Bauer how she liked the campus.
Bauer said she loved it, and then Hanson dropped the atomic bomb:
“Oh, that’s good,” she said. “We’re ready to make you an offer right now.”
Talk about shock and awe … the family was dumbfounded by the offer, but after a few family meetings it was agreed that Bauer would indeed attend Stanford, where she plans to major in economics before hopefully attending law school.
“Mom was in shock when they offered,” Bauer said, laughing. “They were so excited. They’re worried that I’m going so far and they’re sad, but they know it will be well worth it.”
Renee and Jim know that it will be difficult having their eldest child so far from home, but they also realize this is what happens when you have a child as exceptional and well-rounded as Bauer.
“She’s always trying to test herself, always pushing herself,” her mother said. “It’s been a ride with Nikki. She’s always challenging herself. She’s like this big, old fast river, and you fall into it and you just keep going with it.”
Contact Mick McCabe: 313-223-4744 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @mickmccabe1.