Alaska born and raised, Kamryn Frisk represents her state in the unlikeliest of ways
Kamryn Frisk thought her journey was over.
Summer 2019. Frisk had just graduated from Northwest Kansas Technical College. Two years earlier, the born-and-raised Alaskan had flown 3,000 miles from her home in Anchorage to pursue her softball dreams at the two-year college in rural Goodland, Kan. While she became one of NWKTC’s top players, no four-year programs really showed interest in her.
So Frisk enrolled at Dixie State University in St. George, Utah. Going there would essentially end her softball career: Dixie State’s team didn’t offer open tryouts. But through a program called the Western Undergraduate Exchange, she could get heavily discounted tuition there. She booked a flight out, put down the deposit for an apartment. She trained all summer, hoping her luck would turn, but was resigned to being done with the sport she had played almost her entire life.
The Last Frontier is far from a fertile breeding ground for softball. There’s the distance, the cost of living and travel, the weather that limits the playing season to a handful of weeks. Of the few players that do make it to the college level, Frisk says, many have trouble adjusting. They burn out, hang up their cleats, focus on life beyond the diamond.
That appeared to be Frisk’s destiny too. Until everything changed.
On the day of her flight, Frisk got a text from her coach at NWKTC asking if she still wanted to play college softball. Her eyes shot right to her phone. She knew he wouldn’t ask that question if it didn’t pertain to a serious offer.
“What do you have for me?” she texted him back.
“There’s a Division II school in Minnesota looking for a pitcher.”
“Send me the coach’s information. Right. Now.”
Two conversations with coach Travis Owen and one with her parents later, Frisk was committed to the University of Minnesota Crookston.
Frisk just finished her second season with the Golden Eagles. Off the field, she’s an accounting and management double major on track to graduate next year. On the field, she’s a right-handed pitcher, occasional first baseman and member of one of the most exclusive groups in college sports.
There are around 300 teams that play NCAA Division II softball. Some several thousand athletes in all make up their rosters. Of those several thousand, just five hail from this nation’s largest, northernmost state.
“Being able to play at this level,” Frisk says, “it’s God’s gift to me.”
"Fifty years behind"
If there’s one factor above all else that has historically limited the growth of the game in Alaska, it’s the obvious. In the shadow of the Arctic Circle, year-round outdoor play is impossible.
While players in softball-mad states like Arizona and California can hit the diamond by January, Alaskans have no other choice but to remain indoors. At Service High School in Anchorage, Frisk’s school, practices didn’t begin until after spring break in March.
The high school season begins in mid-April during what’s known in Alaska as “breakup season,” the transition period between winter and spring. Hard-packed snow starts to melt, creating giant puddles of slush that suffocate the still-thawing out ground. Special rules exist: for example, hits that land in the melting snow are automatic ground-rule doubles.
All of the action is compressed into a matter of weeks. Usually, teams get in around 15 games before the playoffs begin in mid-May. The postseason runs another few weeks, ending with the state tournament in early June.
“We try to get in as many games as possible, but with the weather being severe, sometimes it just doesn’t happen,” Frisk said. “... It’s still melting, tends to rain a lot. It’s very rare if it’s super nice and sunny.”
For the more advanced players, there’s competitive travel ball during the summer. While the weather’s less a factor at this point, it’s here that Alaska’s isolation comes into play.
Frisk played travel ball throughout her youth and high school career. Travis Frisk, Kamryn’s father, estimates that each trip to the lower 48, of which Kamryn’s clubs usually made two or three per summer, cost around $1,250. While the Frisks never had trouble covering that cost, it still dwarfs the expenses required of young softball players from Florida or Texas who can just hop on buses.
The combination of all these factors means that the Alaskan softball infrastructure — when it comes to training, facilities and resources — is severely lacking. “Fifty years behind,” Travis describes it.
But things are changing fast. Indoor training facilities are starting to pop up, enabling year-round training. Hitting and pitching coaches are becoming more available. In recent years, Travis estimates the number of travel organizations in Anchorage has close to tripled.
Kamryn credits much of her development and college exposure to organizations such as Arctic Heat, her club team during high school, but softball was never a year-round sport for her. She didn’t receive the kind of specialized, all-seasons training that the newest generation of Alaskans has access to.
In her father’s words, she’s one of the “last of a dying breed" in Alaska — a player who had limited opportunities but made the most of them.
"If you're an athlete, you're an athlete"
Throughout the years, the Frisk family has had two main sports: hockey and baseball/softball.
Kamryn played both growing up. On the ice, she was a defenseman with a hard, accurate shot, as Travis describes, not the fastest skater but not the slowest either. Softball, though, was always her primary passion.
Kamryn remembers when she was little, how her father told her she shared a birthday with Alex Rodriguez, one of the greatest sluggers of all time. Her older brother, Karson, was a baseball player himself, and she often tagged along to his practices. When she started playing herself, she thought of herself as carrying on a family tradition.
When she was six, Kamryn started out playing baseball, since there were no softball programs for girls her age in the area. When she was nine, she switched to softball. She tried out for and made her first travel team three years later.
"That just lit a fire inside me of how much I loved this sport," she said.
When Kamryn was 14, Travis got a phone call from an AAU coach who wanted to take her to a tournament in Colorado. She would be playing against girls much older; skilled Division I-caliber prospects who could hit harder and throw faster than her.
Travis knew his daughter was talented, but hadn't given much thought to what could come of it. Could Kamryn herself become a college prospect someday?
"I was thinking, 'Well, maybe something will work out here.' Maybe she's that good," he said. "(Softball) was just something we were doing. I guess I didn't realize that she was pretty darn good."
As a freshman, Kamryn was the starting third baseman for Service's varsity squad. As a sophomore, she switched to first and earned All-Conference honors there. Then, before her junior year, she came home from practice with some news.
Service's returning No. 1 starter, a senior and the coach's daughter, had told her father she didn't want to pitch anymore. Not one inning. He was just going to have to figure it out.
Unless Kamryn did for him.
"She goes, 'I'm gonna have to pitch,' " Travis remembers. "I'm like, 'you don't know how to pitch.' She goes, 'nobody else does, either.' "
This isn't to say Travis thought she couldn't learn. In an era of increased specialization, an era that's only recently reached Alaska, he sees Kamryn's multi-sport background as an advantage. It helped her develop all-around strength and athleticism, meaning she could adapt to almost anything. And thanks to simply growing up in a family of athletes and learning from them, she could pick up the mental complexities of whatever role she was thrust into.
In fact, Travis says now that he wouldn't have let Kamryn play only one sport even if she had the choice.
“Athletic ability transcends sport,” Travis said. “If you’re an athlete, you’re an athlete, plain and simple.”
So Kamryn taught herself how to pitch — well enough to land a college scholarship.
Frisk had reciprocated interest with a junior college in Nebraska, but in mid-July after her senior year, she found out the school no longer had a spot for her. However, the coach did give her the name of a program just starting up and looking for players — Northwest Kansas Technical College.
She gave NWKTC's coach, Drew Kaup, a call. Less than an hour later, she had committed.
"I was like, 'okay, I'm just going to go for it. This is probably going to be my only chance,' " Frisk said. "Now I wouldn't change it for the world."
"This is the place I was meant to be"
At first, Frisk struggled with being all alone, being so far away from home and the size of her new town of 4,000 compared to Anchorage (population 300,000). But the biggest eye-opener for her came on the diamond.
"I had never really done softball year-round," she said. "I practiced and played as much as I could in Alaska, but it wasn't like college. Once I got to my junior college, I knew that softball was not just a sport anymore. It was my job. Softball was the reason I was there. So I had to do whatever it took to be successful."
Frisk's college career has not lacked twists and turns. It's a career that's been defined by adaptability and perseverance.
Her role has changed plenty over the years. Frisk hit .355 for her career at NWKTC, but when Owen first recruited her, he was interested in her pitching, as the Golden Eagles were in a bind there.
During Frisk's freshman season at NWKTC, her earned-run average stood at 12.60 over 75 innings. The next season, she lowered that figure to 8.43. But when he did his research, Owen understood the context: not only were these just her third and fourth years of pitching, but they came on a brand-new, young team with few players. She needed to pitch in almost every game.
Owen didn't see a pitcher allowing more than a run per inning. He saw someone just hungry to get a chance.
"The beauty about someone like Kam, who's so adaptable and has such a great attitude, we're not worried about needing to baby her into a role," Owen said. "It's, 'here's what's gonna be best for the team.' "
Owen thought Frisk showed great improvement in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, during which she put up a 3.69 ERA in 36 innings as UMC's No. 2 pitcher. With another pitcher scheduled to arrive, though, he anticipated using her more as a hitter in 2021.
But that pitcher decided to opt out, meaning Frisk was thrown right back into the mix in the circle. In addition, Frisk dealt with a foot injury much of the season, limiting her training. While her ERA this season was more than double her junior year total, Owen had nothing but praise for how she handled herself and her responsibilities
Frisk's recruitment to UMC was quick — just a few days passed between her initial phone call with Owen and her commitment. Most coaches prefer to take far more time getting to know a prospective recruit. But Owen's concerns, if he had any, were completely assuaged when Frisk stepped on campus. She was exactly like his initial impression of her.
"We had a great team culture last year, but she immediately came in and contributed right away," Owen said. "... I could tell she has integrity. She's going to decide that she's on board for the season and accept her role. She's gonna be straight up with you as well."
Many of the Golden Eagles refer to Frisk as the "team mom" due to her supportive, caring nature, according to Owen. When he looks at Frisk, he sees someone with a "good heart" and a deep desire to do right by others.
One place where this is evident: her team's records. She's been on plenty of teams that were still growing and figuring out how to be competitive. NWKTC went 12-28 during Frisk's freshman year, 1-47 the next. UMC was 6-10 in 2020 and finished this season at 10-32.
"She's always maintained a positive attitude," Travis Frisk said. "We're here to play a game. Let's have fun. Let's play it hard, but it's a game. She's fully invested in everybody on the team."
Talking to Kamryn herself, it's hard to come away thinking she dwells excessively on her lack of team success.
"When coach put me in the group chats last year, I felt so welcomed," she says. "... I had never felt so welcomed and loved by a team. They made me feel so wanted by everyone. I just felt this is the place I was meant to be."
And after all, what's a few losses when you've already traveled 3,000 miles from home to play?
"I want them to look up to me"
The only thing Frisk really misses about Alaska, she says, is her family and friends. Apart from the summer, she's only able to go home once a year during the school year, whenever the breaks are long enough.
That's not to understate her love for her home, though. It's apparent in what she does when she goes back.
Frisk often attends softball camps and programs in Anchorage during the summer. She'll go and hit practice flies for young campers or help out with pitching clinics, wanting to give back to the Alaskan softball community as much as possible.
She takes special pride in when the younger girls come up to her, recognizing who she is and what school she plays for, greeting her with exclamations like "You're so cool!" But it's not about the attention for its own sake: it's about the impact Frisk hopes she has on this next generation.
"I try to be a role model," Frisk said. "I want them to look up to me and be like, 'I wanna be like her. I wanna go and be able to play college softball all four years or five years, or however long it takes.' "
Added her father: "She can play at this level, and she's proven it, and that's a great thing. Hopefully someone is watching what she's doing and will follow in her footsteps."
Owen stepped down as the Golden Eagles' coach last week, but Kamryn still plans on returning to Minnesota Crookston next season to finishing out her career and degree. She knows just how grueling a college softball career can be, but wants to make it all the way to the end — for the Alaskan softball community as much as herself.
"Girls from Alaska, they try and once they realize how hard it is being away from home and how hard it is how much of your life this sport will take up, a lot end up fizzling out or just coming back home," Frisk said. "It's really not for the faint of heart. ... To be able to say I was one of a select few that rode it out for my entire college career, I take so much pride in that."
With her double major and high GPA, among other things, she's confident she'd be able to find a job wherever she wants. But she only sees one realistic option.
"I love Alaska so much," she says. "I can't imagine not living there for the rest of my life."
Sometimes even the longest, most interesting journeys end in the same place they began.
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