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Student Athlete Spotlight: Katie Gardner leads WKU softball in her last year on the Hill

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Katie Gardner, with her left arm wrapped, pitching through injury during the 2022 season

WKU Softballs ace, fifth year pitcher Katie Gardner, almost never stepped foot on the Hill. 

She was originally committed to the University of Tennessee at Martin. Fortunately for the Hilltoppers, the plates aligned for Gardner to find her way home to WKU.

But she never had to find WKU as Gardner is a hometown hero in her own right. From Bowling Green, Gardner attended Warren East High School and was the 2019 Kentucky Miss Softball.

“It [being from Bowling Green] definitely brings a lot of support to like all of our games,” Gardner said. “It’s just really cool to be able to play close to home because my parents can come to almost every single game, which they do come to a lot of our away games, too.”

In Gardner’s freshman year, she only pitched a total of 2.1 innings out of 30 games before Covid-19 interrupted the remainder of the 2020 season. 

“My freshman year I didn’t really play that much,” Gardner said. “And then COVID hit so we had only played like 25 games my freshman year anyway, but I feel like that definitely helped me a lot…And then winning the conference ended my sophomore year. [Former pitcher Kelsey] Aikey went down, so then I had to step into a different role that I hadn’t gotten to step into yet. So that was really fun to do.” 

Today, she is one of the Hilltoppers’ most trusted players, spending more time in the circle than any pitcher.

“Last year, we lost a couple of pitchers and then there was just three of us,” Gardner said. “So that was another different role that I had to do and then this year, being the top pitcher; just really encouraging the rest of our pitching staff. But it’s been really fun so far this year.”

As of April 11, the Bowling Green native has thrown 113.0 innings, 86 strikeouts and has a 2.17 ERA in the 2024 season. Additionally, she has helped lead the Hilltoppers to 14 wins.

In an April 5 game, Gardner pitched a near shutout against Liberty University when she only allowed one hit in seven innings.

When Gardener reflects on her progress over the course of five years on the Hill, she credits much of it to her team.

“I definitely think it reflects on our team because I can’t do everything by myself,” Gardner said. “I’m not going to get 21 strikeouts. So definitely, depending on my defense for a lot of those wins. And of course, just all of the process of going through fall and then coming back super early for spring training. I think it does reflect a lot on how hard everybody works.”

Aside from statistics, Gardner’s determination and dedication to the game also proved true in other ways. 

In Gardner’s junior year, she broke her non-pitching wrist during weight training with the team. To Gardner, the biggest problem wasn’t her wrist, it was figuring out how to still play. At the time, WKU was about to play Texas A&M, and she refused to be benched.

“But I still pitched and literally just held my arm up,” Gardner said. “They would roll the ball back at me.”

Gardner is earning her masters in speech-language pathology. Following graduation she plans to do a clinical fellowship, most likely outside of Bowling Green.

As graduation approaches, Gardner will step off the field of the WKU Softball Complex for the last time on May 5, following a matchup against the University of Texas at El Paso.

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