All great athletes start from somewhere.
For Kate Poppe, Villanova softball’s all-time leader in career strikeouts, it began in her backyard.
As a 10-year-old on her little league softball team, she wasn’t the premier ace. Instead, she was the three-pitcher, listed behind two other girls and only having limited number of innings to her name.
That following summer, she committed to getting up at 5 a.m. each and every morning. While other girls her age were fast asleep or enjoying time away at summer camp, she was in her backyard with her dad, working on her pitching.
“I didn’t like that I wasn’t holding the ball and wasn’t a part of every play,” Poppe said. “That’s why I became a pitcher, I wanted to be involved. The two pitchers in front of me, they were my best friends at the time, but I wanted to beat them in a friendly competitive way. I think I just wanted to be out there.”
So every morning, before her father went to work, she was ready to go in the backyard.
The hard work paid off, as she was named the ace pitcher as an 11-year-old the following season. At that moment, she knew she wanted to do this for life.
The Downingtown, Pa. native went on to play four years of softball at Bishop Shanahan, earning First Team All-League honors three times and receiving the Southeast Pennsylvania Player of the Year Award in her senior year.
She tallied 70 career wins, boasting an ERA of 0.76 and 938 career strikeouts.
Along the way, she received pitching lessons from current Villanova softball head coach Maria DiBernardi, starting when she was 14.
“I remember meeting her and her dad on the softball field and asking, ‘How fast could she throw?’” DiBernardi said. “He said 60, and I said, ‘Yeah right, ninth grade and she’s throwing 60?’ I put the gun on her and she threw 61. She threw hard and I knew this girl was legit.”
While she was under DiBernardi’s tutelage, Poppe looked at a number of Pennsylvania schools early in her high school career. She looked at Drexel, St. Joseph’s, and Fairfield.
However, once it was time to apply for schools her junior year, she was already determined to go about a half-an-hour away to Villanova, following in the footsteps of her parents and grandfather.
“When I made her an offer, I could see her jumping out of her chair, but I told her to go home and think about it, don’t get wrapped up in it,” DiBernardi said. “She wanted to commit right then in that room, and I said I won’t take it. She left and then she called me right across in West Campus, asking to talk and saying that she made her decision. She didn’t even make it off campus and that’s how excited she was.”
Since donning the blue and white, Poppe has continued her dominance at the collegiate level.
She developed a masterful screwball, but also has a curveball that she likes to lean on. Also in her arsenal are the rise, changeup, and a drop curve to round off her pitches.
They have helped her throw three no-hitters during her time as a Wildcat and earned All-Conference honors twice over the last two seasons.
On April 18, 2015, she broke the school record for career strikeouts. While the Wildcats lost in extra innings to Providence, she etched her name on top of the leaderboard, beating the previous mark set by 2001 graduate Keri Stoller.
“Honestly, I’m just trying to throw my game,” Poppe said. “I’m a strikeout pitcher so it just works out that I have the numbers. I really just try to get the next out and it was awesome to win that record and make history here and add to my legacy, but it’s really just an honor to be out here and playing with these girls behind me.”
Now, she is merely adding to her own record. Poppe currently has 938 career strikeouts and is on pace to break a thousand career strikeouts.
It would be an accomplishment that no other Villanova softball pitcher has achieved before her.
“I’ve definitely thought about it,” she said. “It would be really cool. There’s a Wikipedia page with the top strikeouts in the NCAA, we talked about how it’d be cool to be on there, but it’s definitely not the priority.”
She and her teammates are focused on one common goal that is at the forefront of this season.
Last year, they were able to clinch a spot in the Big East Tournament for the first time in five years. Not only do they want to return there, they want to win it all.
Despite the ramped up pressure and the large goal placed before her, she’s taking a more relaxed approach to the game in her final season.
“I had a rough season last year because I was thinking too much about the whole season,” Poppe said. “If I don’t strike this girl out, I won’t be able to strike anyone out in this game, against this harder team. I just thought way too much into everything, instead of going out and throwing my game and having fun with it.”
While she is taking the game one pitch and one inning at a time, she has also thought of her future after Villanova.
She aspires to be a softball coach at the collegiate level. She is hoping to get a chance to start at a graduate assistant or volunteer coach.
If not, the marketing major can lean on her knowledge of business as a career path.
Until then, she’s enjoying the time she has with her friends and teammates, making those memories that will last beyond the diamond and building on their friendships to help them last a lifetime.
She’s going to have a hard time saying goodbye.
“I just love spending all this time with them, that’s probably the best thing about being a student-athlete,” Poppe said. “Having these 18 other girls around as my best friends to joke with, to be around, to be weird with – that makes it all worth it.”
While she’s figuring that out, DiBernardi and the Villanova Softball program is figuring out how to say their farewells to her.
“You just can’t replace Kate,” DiBernardi said. “You just have to piece everyone together that can handle a lot of ball games. We were fortunate to be one of the ones left that has a dominating pitcher like Kate, but there aren’t a lot of teams that do pitching. Hitters are getting better but pitchers aren’t as good as they used to be.”