Drive and determination motivate Graf to finish what she started
Julie Graf ’21 and Kayla Hatting both arrived at St. Olaf College in the fall of 2016 — Graf as a shy first-year student and Hatting as the new head softball coach. After an awkward first encounter that was mostly filled with giggles, it did not take Hatting long to see what Graf was capable of in their first practice.
“I stood behind her as she was pitching and knew she was good,” Hatting says. “Then I stepped in the batter’s box to get a different view, and at that point I looked at my assistant and told him she was special. From that practice on, her intrinsic drive, selflessness, passion, skill, and the competitor in her showed up every day in practice.”
What neither Hatting nor Graf knew, however, was how Graf’s career would unfold, but her drive and determination have helped her become one of the most dominant pitchers in the country at the NCAA Division III level.
Born into a baseball family in Sammamish, Washingon, a suburb half an hour east of Seattle, Graf grew up watching New York Yankees games and watching her older brother, Jakob, play baseball. After her short-lived dance career fizzled out, she set her eyes on softball.
With her dad as her first coach, Graf started pitching at the age of nine and started being competitive at 12 years old.
“I worked hard to get better for years and always felt I could compete with the best,” she says. “I don’t think I really realized I had the potential to be dominant until my junior year of high school and, even then, I still felt like I was overlooked at times and was always working to prove myself.”
A four-year letterwinner at Eastlake High School and second team all-conference selection as a senior, Graf received mixed levels of interest from a few Division II and Division III schools and was rejected or ignored by others.
As she was looking at schools using online college-matching services, Graf was consistently a strong match for Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC) schools due to their academic rigor, small class sizes, and other aspects of campus life.
“I actually found St. Olaf online,” she says. “My dad suggested that we go visit and check them out, neither of us having ever been to Minnesota. After visiting, I ended up finding out that I knew a lot of people in my community who were Oles or knew Oles. The more I found out about St. Olaf and talked to people about it, the more excited I was to potentially be an Ole myself.”
Graf connected with then-head-coach Ruthie Neuger via email and made St. Olaf one of her stops on a tour of a few MIAC schools during her junior year. Like many others, Graf was struck by the people when she stepped foot on campus.
“When I visited St. Olaf, it was truly the people I met that made me want to come,” she says. “Ruthie’s excitement to have me in the program was a huge factor, as well as how kind and welcoming the team was to me when I sat in on practice.”
The competitive side of Graf also kicked in.
“I knew I wanted to go somewhere that I could be a true difference-maker in the program and to a place that was proud to have me there,” she adds. “Beyond the softball side of things, the academics at St. Olaf were a huge draw, as well as the beautiful campus; St. Olaf just had everything I was looking for out of my college experience.”
I knew I wanted to go somewhere that I could be a true difference-maker in the program and to a place that was proud to have me there. Beyond the softball side of things, the academics at St. Olaf were a huge draw, as well as the beautiful campus; St. Olaf just had everything I was looking for out of my college experience.Julie Graf ’21
As a first-year, Graf went through the usual challenges of transitioning to being a college student — but immediately found a home with the softball team.
“I was lucky to have such a strong support system coming in, right off the bat,” she says. “Coach Hatt and the returners from the team were super welcoming and made me feel supported and at home. I don’t know where I would have been without having that built-in family.”
On the diamond, Graf hit the ground running immediately. In her first season, she was named a Second Team All-American by the National Fastpitch Coaches Association (NFCA) and the MIAC Pitcher of the Year after going 22-5 with a 0.73 ERA and a then-school-record 272 strikeouts in 181.1 innings.
The immediate success came as a surprise to Graf.
“I honestly did not know what to expect as far as how I would truly stack up at the collegiate level,” she says. “It’s just a level and atmosphere that you don’t understand until you’re living it. I had high hopes for developing more as a pitcher and all-around athlete, as well as for success and competing against the best of the best in Division III. But I really did not know what was in store for me.”
Despite being an All-American as a first year, Graf was still determined to improve.
“After her first season, Julie and I had a conversation about how she was going to keep getting better each year in her four-year career here,” Hatting says. “She worked tirelessly to continue to improve, adding both speed and different pitches. She never settles. She is always striving for more.”
Graf continued her success in her sophomore and junior seasons, earning All-MIAC and NFCA All-Region honors both years. As a sophomore, she struck out 260 batters in 173.0 innings while winning 15 games with a 1.82 ERA. As a junior, Graf became the MIAC’s all-time leader in career strikeouts during a season that saw her go 18-11 with a 1.78 ERA, as she broke her own school record with 326 strikeouts in 169.0 innings.
In addition to her individual accolades, Graf helped St. Olaf win at least 23 games in each of her first three seasons after the program had not had a winning season since 1998 prior to her rookie season of 2017. The Oles also qualified for the MIAC Playoffs in her sophomore and junior seasons after making two appearances in the postseason in the first 14 years of the tournament.
Entering her senior season, Graf and the Oles were hoping to take another step and make their first appearance in the NCAA Tournament since 1996. That goal and the season as a whole came crashing to a halt in mid-March when the COVID-19 pandemic caused the NCAA and the MIAC to cancel the spring season after St. Olaf had started the season 7-1.
“We kind of heard about it in stages over a few days that felt like weeks,” Graf says. “It was a strange mix of being heartbroken but also not wanting to give up hope. Once the MIAC canceled, we all just felt so defeated. I could not comprehend or believe that I had played my last game and did not even know it.”
Less than 24 hours after learning that their season was canceled, Graf and her teammates found out from the coaching staff that the NCAA had given the year of eligibility back to all affected student-athletes, opening the door for seniors to return in the spring of 2021.
Graf, Hatting, and Assistant Coach Shae Hoskins spent the next day talking with Admissions, Financial Aid, and the Registrar about how this would work and, a couple days later, got confirmation that she could return.
“I knew that this time next year, if I had the opportunity to play one more season and turned it down, I would regret it indefinitely,” Graf says.
An exercise science and psychology double-major who became St. Olaf’s first-ever College Sports Information Directors of America (CoSIDA) Academic All-America ® selection earlier this spring, Graf was in the process of looking for graduate assistant positions that would allow her to coach and pursue a master’s degree before her plans changed with the extra year of eligibility. Now, she plans to use the extra year to explore career opportunities and gain workplace experience.
For Graf, the decision to return was also motivated by the desire to finish what she started both with the softball program and individually. During her career, Graf has helped the program develop from a sub-.500 team to one that earned its first NFCA national ranking since 1997 this spring and being part of that has meant more to Graf than the personal accolades.
“It has been absolutely incredible and finding out about the ranking truly brought tears to my eyes,” Graf says. “All of the work we have put in had been paying off this whole time but we did not have much recognition to show for it. We felt for a long time that we were making strides in the right direction, but it sure did feel good to finally be respected as the top-notch program we have been working so diligently to become.”
On a personal level, Graf wanted the chance to have a healthy, complete senior season after battling injuries throughout her career at St. Olaf. The summer after her sophomore year, she had surgery on her left shoulder to repair a torn labrum that occurred at the end of her rookie season. After rehabbing all year leading up to her junior season, she tore the labrum in her right hip in the first conference doubleheader of the year and had it surgically repaired this past summer.
“I could not have done any of this without the support of my coaches, athletic trainers, and teammates,” Graf says of playing through the injuries. “They have been there for me every single step of the way, on the good days and the bad days. There is nothing I wanted more than to be back on the field with them and they made every tough day worthwhile in the end.”
That end is now another year away for Graf — but she cannot wait till next spring.
“I am looking forward to continuing to grow in these relationships, especially within my team and the athletics community,” Graf says. “I am excited to continue working on myself, towards being the best athlete and human being that I can be. I am excited to finish what I’ve started here and help my team achieve what we have been working so hard for. Ole softball will reach heights in 2021 greater than ever before, and I am excited to be a part of it.”
Between the chance to pursue her athletic and academic goals and form relationships with coaches, teammates, and other members of the St. Olaf community, Graf is grateful to have another season ahead of her.
Being a student-athlete at St. Olaf has arguably been the best experience of my life.Julie Graf ’21
“Being a student-athlete at St. Olaf has arguably been the best experience of my life,” she says. “St. Olaf has been a safe place to be myself, devote myself wholeheartedly to the things I care about, fail at things, learn from them, and grow as a result. The amount of growth I’ve had in so many different areas in my time here is incredible. The people I have met at St. Olaf have been so influential and impactful to me, and I feel so blessed that I don’t have to say goodbye quite yet.”