Family matters: All-around competitor Stephanie (Plahn) Kruger to be inducted into Pipestone-Jasper Athletic Hall of Fame

It would have been extremely easy for Stephanie (Plahn) Kruger to rest on the laurels of her older sisters Laurie, and Julie, whose athletic exploits have been well documented and include Pipestone-Jasper Athletic Hall of fame induction. And older brother Brian was also a three-sport athlete, competing in football, basketball and baseball. Kruger could simply have joined this or that team, put in minimum effort and likely still have started on varsity teams that, in southwest Minnesota, needed as many bodies as they could find to lace up cleats and sneakers.

Kruger, however, traveled the same route as the aforementioned Plahns, putting in countless extra hours to fine-tune and perfect her athletic skills, and for her diligence will also be inducted in the Pipestone-Jasper Athletic Hall of Fame (Class of 2021) in a ceremony, Oct. 1 in Pipestone.

“I think Steph is one of those kids whose time, effort and commitment came to a head, where she did all she could do to maximize her abilities and talents, and that’s what we push for all of our kids,” said Pipestone Area basketball coach Jay Johnson, who directed Kruger two years on Pipestone’s B squad as well as during her senior season with the Arrow varsity. “Steph was one of those kids who realized her talents and that again comes with putting in time. And she understood how that would help the team. She embodies what you want out of your kids, striving to improve individually so they can improve the collective whole.”

In Kruger’s case the ‘whole’ was … split, as she is the fraternal twin to sister Stacy – another outstanding Plahn athlete and Pipestone-Jasper competitor.

“I would not have been near the athlete that I am if it wasn’t for my twin sister,” said the 2003 Pipestone Area graduate. “I pitched her thousands of balls in our front yard, over and over, would play catch, but mostly pitching to her for hours.”

And it’s on the softball diamond where Kruger had her greatest success, earning four letters, two school Most Valuable Player awards, thrice earning All-Conference honors, as well as an honorable mention once, two (state) All-Tournament selections, a place on the All-State team and was selected to participate in the state All-Star softball series.

But that was well down the road … after playing pee wee baseball as a youth in Jasper.

“Oh yeah, softball was my love,” said Kruger, who, with her sister Stacy, are the fourth and fifth of Don and Deb Plahn’s six children. “But softball wasn’t immediately available to us. My sister Laurie played baseball and we played pee wee baseball too. My dad was in involved in the Lions Club and did a lot with the maintenance of fields and when Jasper League was first formed, we switched over to softball. By the time we got to Pipestone, we played at the first opportunity, seventh grade, and we played the entire time – lettered four years after being pulled up to the varsity as freshmen.”

Of course, that was in the spring and summer months. By that time Kruger had already participated and excelled in volleyball and basketball and, eventually, cross country and tennis.

The twins always followed what Laurie and Julie had done athletic-wise, playing volleyball and basketball because they had. They’d watched them play, watched them enjoy success and like most siblings wanted to emulate them.

“We’d always followed in the footsteps of Julie and Laurie; they played volleyball, so we played volleyball, they played basketball, so we played basketball,” explained Kruger. “We ran one year of cross country (lettering), Stacy being a much better runner than me, and our sophomore year some of us, me, Stacy and Shelly Ludolph were allowed to do two sports in the spring. Stacy and I actually did volleyball and tennis that spring. Neither of us had played tennis before.”

Noting that there were plenty of talented athletes playing volleyball at the time, and at the strong behest of tennis coach Ed Gustafson, the pair picked up racquets and … picked up the game.

“We enjoyed tennis more than we enjoyed volleyball, which had so many good players,” Kruger said. So, we pursued tennis instead, and it was fun for us. It was just us.”

And as Plahns just – do – Stephanie and Stacy promptly formed an outstanding partnership that eventually had the pair playing for the Arrows in the No.1 doubles position.

“I just kept after them,” explained Gustafson. “I knew they were good athletes and worked really hard. And since they were good athletes, I felt they could pick it up. They had some problems picking up some of the strokes, but, for the most part, they did a great job on both sides of the net. And they wanted to play together, so that was a plus. They were very aggressive players and both could put good pace on the ball. Steph had more height and was the better net player, powerful too.”

Kruger and her sister were such quick studies of the game that they earned a runner-up finish at the conference meet as sophomores and juniors – winning the conference doubles title as seniors.

“She (Stacy) was, overall, a better tennis player than I,” noted Kruger. “I dominated at the net and she would stay back because she had better groundstrokes, I had a better backhand than she did so when we received serve, I would be on the backhand side and quickly switch places to get to the net, but she was a better technical player

“Oh, yeah, we communicated well … a lot of body language; we could read each other well, which is probably why we did so well. And winning the conference championship that senior year was huge because we should have won as sophomores and juniors. We were better than our opponents, but sophomore year I choked in championship and junior year she choked. So, senior year we said, ‘we have to do this now,’ and we did get it. It was a special moment for us.”

And Kruger credits Gustafson for his initial hutzpah, his dedication and knowledge of the game in not only getting her to the court, but also with making her the best player she could be in a short time.

“He was a hoot to play for,” she said. “The reason we even chose to go out for tennis was because he approached us, saying, ‘I want some natural athletes to be in this sport to show that it is an athletic sport.’ So, we humored him. We didn’t think we’d be very good at it, but as he suggested, our natural athleticism carried over to the tennis courts. We didn’t know anything, but we caught on really fast. His encouragement to give it a try is the reason we went out in the first place. 

“He’s such a hyper guy and so much fun to be around. ‘Gus, I don’t even have the energy to keep up with you and you are three times my age.’ His favorite saying to me was, ‘Stephanie, sit!’ because to get a good groundstroke you had get low. I have longer legs, so it was hard for me to get low. He was constantly telling me to sit, and I would roll my eyes at him. But he was right, I hit a better ball when I did what he said. He was very involved; he’d get right up to us, show us exactly what we were doing wrong – a great, great tennis coach who made it very fun.”

From cement courts to hardwood courts, Kruger moved from tennis to basketball in the fall, where she excelled as a small forward for Johnson on the B squad before joining the varsity program under Jeff Schelhaas in her sophomore and junior seasons. Applying the same work ethic to basketball as she did every other sport she played, the small forward, sometime post, proved a lethal shooter – from the open floor as well as from the line.

Although Kruger lettered as a varsity player for three seasons, her fondest memories of her time on the hardwood was playing B squad with a host of eventual Hall of Famers.

“Me, (sister) Stacy, Jamie Claussen, Kati Newgard and Stacy Evans; us five clicked as a team and did really, really well as a B squad team,” she said. “Jay was such a good technical coach; he worked with me on my shot a lot. In the off-season, at open gym, he would critique and correct things in our shots, and we had a higher percentage because of it.

“We had Schelhaas for varsity our sophomore and junior years, and it was an adjustment to figure out his style of play. We didn’t play as well, but it was a whole new level … with the varsity. He did a nice job of advancing us to be able to play at that level. It was probably his belief in me, us, that stands out most in my mind. His belief in me was huge my sophomore year and I went on to score something like 400 points that season. He did a great job of instilling confidence in me … that I could do great things.”

And for Johnson’s part, as Kruger’s B squad coach and varsity skipper her senior season, he tried to extrapolate what had already been instilled in Stephanie by her parents and siblings.

“When it came to shooting, she was just a deadeye,” Johnson said. “How she approached shooting, which I see as kind of a science, is through absolute consistency. A free throw, I’d say if she shot a hundred it never varied in any way shape or form. Her consistency with the dribble, the height of her dribble; it was just amazing how she approached it. And in turn, it carried over into her other sports – having great success because she did things in such a consistent manner. A lot of it is a testament to the time she put into each sport and improving herself, and me trying to continue to do what her parents did, which was push and encourage her to continue to pursue what she loved to do.”

“Shooting; yeah, I know how to shoot it from three-point line … both of us, and free throws were our most dangerous weapon,” Kruger added. “In the post, I drew a lot of fouls because I knew I could hit from the free throw line – if I didn’t make a shot, it was because I was fouled and if I got fouled, I knew I’d make the free throws. That began early in Jasper. My dad was the elementary principal over there and had keys to the gym. We lived kitty-corner to the school so we used to shoot free throws for fun. My record was 89-of-100 and Stacy was 98-of-100 … please foul us because we could make free throws.”

Another thing Kruger could do was pitch a softball. 

A four-year starter and letterwinner, Kruger helped lead the Pipestone-Jasper program to its first state tournament in 2001 and again as Pipestone Area in 2003, where the Arrows finished as runners-up.

A deadeye with a basketball, Kruger was known for having a lethal delivery from the circle.

“That’s where Schelhaas was very influential in my softball; he taught me how to throw a change-up in the eighth grade,” she said. “And one summer I actually played on an All-Star team in Sioux Falls and my change-up was known to many players and coaches. They called it the ‘deadly change-up.’”

Not only was it deadly, but it seldom was thrown for a ball. Kruger, for better or worse, seldom threw balls.

“My job was to throw strikes and that’s what I did; too many,” she said. “I remember Coach (Troy) Bouman telling me, ‘You have to throw a ball sometimes.’ And he had to coach me to throw a ball.”

“The funny thing is, and we still talk about it to this day, we played a game against Red Rock Central – a seven inning game – that took 52 minutes,” Bouman added. “She threw strikes worked ahead, and I think she only struck out two batters. Our defense played extremely well behind her. Of course, they were expecting the ball to come to them because Steph was expecting them to put it in play somewhere. The defense would go out and make the play.”

And Kruger had great belief in the team behind her, especially her sister. Stacy, who was her original catcher growing up, went to shortstop, and Stacy Evans became Kruger’s backstop in high school. 

“I had a lot of confidence in her; I knew if it was hit to short, she’d get it and throw it to first,” Kruger said. “And that’s something that still hurts about the year we were runners-up. We should have won, but we made errors we didn’t normally make and that cost us a state title.”

By then, Pipestone’s program had become a ‘family.’ The Arrows’ 2001 march to the program’s first state tournament put the final stitch on a tapestry that would go on to claim 13 Section crowns and win the Class A state championship in 2007.

Crystal Krapf helped the Arrows defeat their nemesis, the Jackson County Central Huskies, 1-0, with a walk-off single over first base – plating Stacy Plahn for the winning run. The sister’s father led the collective embrace that ensued.

“It was really cute how involved all parents were,” Kruger recalled. “Stacy got on base someone bunted her to second and then third and Crystal Krapf hit a blooper over first baseman’s head.  All the dads did this ‘dad hug.’ My dad initiated it … the best thing ever. And it was fun being the first team from Pipestone to go to state … been just about every year since. It’s the best memory.”

In a sport full of extremely fond memories for Kruger and her teammates. 

But it was seldom just about the victories or the titles. From the circle, on the diamond, Kruger was confident because of her preparation. And with Bouman, preparing was … fun.

“Mr. Bouman is by far my favorite coach,” Kruger said. “He was always positive and expected everyone to be positive too. His saying of ‘look good, feel good, play good,’ and I know other athletes have quoted him on that, didn’t allow for negativity.  He knew mindset was everything in sports. If you came in with a negative mindset you weren’t going to play well. Practice was as fun as it was technical. 

“In games he was constantly having the girls chatter; it drove the energy up and then we’d play better. Troy is a great coach and still has a very successful program. And the state tournament is at Caswell Park and most years I’m there to watch the Arrows. I don’t follow other sports, but me and my sister keep tabs on how softball is doing.”

And Bouman is quick to return the kudos to Kruger and her sister, who have to be credited with being part of a group of young women who helped ‘jumpstart’ Pipestone’s program. Embracing Bouman’s notions of how a team should be run and supported, while going above and beyond in and outside of practices has served generations of the Arrow softball family extremely well.

“Steph and her sister are the first two to put in a lot of time; they really worked extremely hard at it,” he said. “Steph did what she was supposed to do, kept the ball down; strike one was a little above the knees, strike two was by the knees and strike three was below the knees. She lived down there and spotted the ball very well. She got us to our first two state tournaments and started throwing for us as a freshman … went from there. 

“You can’t say enough good things about her and her teammates; you don’t get to that point of being the Hall of Fame without good teammates and great support from your family.”

Softball or otherwise.

“We really helped put Pipestone on the map as a good program because of good coaches and because of all the wonderful support of our parents,” Kruger said. “Mine never missed a game from seventh grade until the end of our senior season. At least one of them was always there.”

During her final softball campaign that yielded the Arrows a runner-up finish at the state tournament, Kruger wasn’t even attending classes in Pipestone – opting to get a leg up with college-level courses in Marshall. Though she was already ahead of the field heading in toward a degree at Mankato State University, she wasn’t sure she wanted to give athletics a try at that level. And little did she know, a brief conservation with a friend would, basically, throw a change-up in any notions of playing softball or any other sport in college.

“Our friend, who we’re not friends with anymore, said, ‘hey this is a way of having college paid for you, you’ll never get deployed … there’s the Army, Navy and Marines ahead of us;’ guess what, we got deployed in 2008 as part of the National Guard,” Kruger said. “We blindly joined, not even realizing … thinking, it’s just one weekend a month, two weeks a year, so we literally joined because of a friend. Right after the championship game, a month later, we went to boot camp for basic training. We were the first ones in the family outside of grandparents to join the military, and my dad was so proud.”

At Fort Jackson, S.C. and later in Maryland for Advanced Individual Training (AIT), Kruger eased through the physical aspects of training. At the end of boot camp Kruger was named the Solider of the Cycle while Stacy earned Leader of the Cycle – despite the twins initially being thought of as potential instigators. 

 “Boot camp wasn’t too difficult, not the physical part, and before we left for basic, our sergeant suggested we try not to be first or last … ‘just blend into the middle,’ she said. “But because we were twin sisters and looked enough alike, we caught the eye of all the drill sergeants, who thought we were going to be trouble makers. We weren’t allowed to be in the same squad, thought we’d play tricks, but luckily, we were in the same barracks. That was why I wasn’t as homesick. We ended up top women in the Army Physical Fitness tests, got perfect scores of 300 … showing our athleticism. I do think our time in school sports helped with physical demands, and maybe mentally too.”

But back to Mankato for classes after AIT, Kruger didn’t really have the option of picking up sports again; she had few options before she’d even left as recruiters didn’t necessarily want to take on a ‘player’ who would be leaving and might not have a regular schedule.

That was okay with Kruger, however, as she wanted to hold onto those final memories of high school sports – especially the Arrows’ 2003 state tournament run.

 “I hadn’t planned on it,” she said. “We ended softball so well, and I’d played in the All-Star game and, honestly, the All-Star game woke me. There are so many amazing players out there and I wanted to go out on this high note. I missed it that first year back in college, but by the second year I didn’t think of it much.”

Kruger and her sister were deployed to Iraq in 2008 and after coming back to school the former earned her bachelor’s degree in exercise science. She later earned a graduate degree from St. Catherine University in St. Paul and is currently an occupational therapist around raising her five boys with husband Jesse Kruger. 

Kruger will undoubtedly speak of family, immediate and extended – through athletics – when she speaks at the Athletic Hall of Fame banquet in October, recalling all the time and energy she, her sister, her teammates and coaches put into attaining their goals. Kruger was an instrumental part of the development of the Arrow softball family and helped ignite a passion that would see the program participate in the state tournament 13 times since 2001, finishing as runners up twice (2003, 2008) and winning it all in 2007.

“I just think that family is so athletic with so many great athletes, and people talk about pressure, but for those two, as twins, to come through it, with how successful their older sisters were is amazing,” Bouman said. “And to be that good you have to work at it and accept that challenge. Cami Fey followed Steph in the circle and still holds some records; she worked hard too and went along with us to the state tournament in 2003 – didn’t make it herself afterward. In 2006, we took a bunch of youngsters to state who went on and won it in 2007 with Chelsey Evans in the circle. At state you gotta have some things go right; we only scored four runs in 2007, but only gave up one!

“Hands down Steph is deserving of this honor, very, very deserving. For what she did for our program, to get it where it is today, she’s the cog that started our group. In 2001, they were a bunch of sophomores, and in 2003 those sophomores became seniors, had to learned to handle adversity and made their way to the championship game.”

And like most successful athletes, who almost always go on to have successful careers and raise successful children, Kruger praises family, coaches, friends and teammates for helping guide them on and off the fields.

“Athletics definitely prepares a person for life because you have people who are depending on you; your work ethic determines the outcome and that’s what life is,” she said. “Attitude determines how life is going, playing high school sports definitely helped me transition into adulthood and prepared me for real life; from everything it takes to be on a team – bringing that into life, into a workforce, where you have to team up and resolve conflict. That’s definitely a takeaway from participating in athletics.”