The matriarch of the Steffensen family out of Kenai — “grandma Mary” as she’s known — was quite the softball star back in her day.
Mary Steffensen, the mother of Kenai Central High School wrestling coach Stan Steffensen and grandmother of current American Legion Twins slugger Paul Steffensen, never played high school ball in her hometown of Hazel, South Dakota, because girls weren’t afforded the opportunity to play prep sports back then, but her exploits in the town leagues ultimately landed her in the USA Softball of South Dakota Hall of Fame in Women’s Fastpitch.
And that’s where Paul Steffensen’s story starts.
When he isn’t busy terrorizing the base paths for the American Legion Twins or building on an impressive fitness level, Steffensen can be found working 12-hour night shifts at the Kenai beach fish shack, where he is employed by the city of Kenai Parks and Recreation Department.
So what does that leave time for?
“Not much at this point,” Steffensen said with a laugh in a recent interview. “Just enough time to get ready for the next day.”
The 19-year-old Steffensen mans the fish shack as a summer job, taking fishermen’s fees as they head out on the beach. The job will help him out as he gets ready for his second year at Mesa Community College (Arizona) this fall.
But the 2017 KCHS graduate has become known for his power at the plate and his trickery on the base paths on the high school team and the Post 20 Twins program. Steffensen has become a crucial crutch for a young Twins program this summer, his last season for Post 20 before he ages out of eligibility. As a former state champion with the Twins (2016), Steffensen knows what it takes to win, and he has provided a valuable example for the younger players on the team.
“It’s awesome, but I wish I had more time to be with them more in practices,” Steffensen said. “There’s a lot of stuff you learn from college that you can pass on. In games, you’re not able to be as helpful as much as you’d like because you’re in a game.”
Tasked as a leader
His first year at Mesa CC produced dazzling results. A 26-game hitting streak helped Steffensen to take the batting title with a .404 average in the Arizona Community College Athletic Association. His 42 RBIs were third-best on his team, and he also stole a team-high 16 bases.
“He was pretty good last year and he’s only gotten better,” said Twins head coach Robb Quelland earlier this season. “He was probably the best on our team and then he went to college and had the season he had.”
Steffensen said after the kind of year he had in Arizona, he considered getting some time in the Alaska Baseball League with his hometown Peninsula Oilers, but decided against it in favor of a full-time summer job to provide some financial insurance for himself.
Post 20 manager Lance Coz did offer him playing time with the Twins — who wouldn’t? — which Steffensen took him up on. Steffensen has started every league contest this summer between his working shifts and exercise regimen.
“I wasn’t expecting (to play Legion) ball at all,” Steffensen said. “I even left my Twins pullover in Arizona. I wasn’t thinking about it.”
Steffensen’s grandmother Mary passed away in 2007, the same year she was inducted into the Women’s Fastpitch Hall of Fame for the state of South Dakota, an exclusive list that numbers just 36 total members.
Paul spent a summer around age 9 playing Little League in Madison, South Dakota, where he got to enjoy the same passion as his grandma Mary. The whole Steffensen family are fans of the Minnesota Twins, and the younger Steffensen got to share moments with his parents and grandmother watching Twins games on TV.
“It was one of those things that brings you together, you sit around the TV, eat and watch the Twins,” Steffensen recalls. “As a little kid, anytime your team is on was a good time.”
Stan Steffensen said his mother was known for her softball prowess but was also an adept bowler, among other activities she enjoyed.
The elder Steffensen said he received his passion for sports and athletic ability from both parents, including his father Ellery, and as a kid could not wait to attend games his mother played in, hoping that the league would include him when they needed another player. Sometimes, most of the field consisted of Steffensen family and relatives.
Steffensen said Mary won a town league state title in 1966 with a no-hitter in one of the five games she pitched.
“We’d go down and spend as much time with my mom and help out,” Stan said. “We’d all play and be with the cousins, we were able to have (cousin) Terry as a coach, and they let Paul be on the team.”
Stan Steffensen said his mother was always competitive in any environment, and that included state fairs. When the family met up one year in the Lower 48 for a carnival, Mary put her pitching skills to use in the game booths.
“There was a carnival and they had a game to win stuffed animals,” Stan recalled. “My kids liked Mary because she was really good at those things. She knocked them down and won prizes for them.”
A family of athletes
Baseball and wrestling were the two sports with which the family grew up, but other than the one summer playing Little League in South Dakota, Paul never played competitive baseball until his high school years in Kenai.
Until then, he was a wrestling phenom, like his siblings and his father. Paul said he looked up to his siblings, and continues to receive advice from older siblings, Hope and Ellery, to this day.
Stan is a three-time state champion at Lake Preston High School in South Dakota, where he grew up, and is now in the South Dakota state wrestling hall of fame. Steffensen said he lost a state tournament semifinal his freshman year, but never lost again en route to 98 consecutive wins before graduating in 1978.
Steffensen went on to become an All-American wrestler at Huron University (South Dakota), before finishing his degree in teaching and coaching in 1982. He spent two years working in Dillingham before finding his way to the Kenai in 1988, where he’s raised his family with wife, DeeAnn.
The four Steffensen children are each athletic in their own right. Hope Steffensen won a state high school championship against boys, becoming the second girl from the Kenai Peninsula to do so after Skyview’s Michaela Hutchison.
Ellery and Paul each won two state crowns over their high school career, and all four kids (including 10-year-old Daniel) are triple crown winners in the sport, meaning they’ve won national titles in the trio of disciplines — freestyle, folkstyle and Roman-Greco. Paul has six national titles himself, all coming before his high school years.
Hope, now 23, is a second-year law student at Notre Dame University, while Ellery, 22, is a senior at Concordia University.
“It’s such a blessing,” Stan said. “It’s one thing to win a state championship … but to have kids is a blessing in itself. Then to have them in sports, it’s like, wow, you can’t count on those things. A lot of parents would love to have their kids involved in that, but it’s not their passion.
“It’s just a miracle.”
Wrestling with success
As a two-time state champion wrestler, Paul Steffensen was well on his way to joining the rare four-time club of Alaska state champions. Steffensen won the 126-pound title as a freshman in 2014 and the 145-pound crown as a sophomore in 2015, using his family style of aggressiveness and pinpoint technique to succeed.
However, the call of the baseball diamond became increasingly louder, and Steffensen realized he had to make a choice. Wrestling or baseball?
“I’m not a guy that really does anything halfway and I know I wouldn’t have all my energy into wrestling,” he said.
Steffensen wrestled in one dual meet his junior season, then walked away from the sport for good to pursue his baseball dreams.
For someone that had never lost a state championship, Steffensen said he received a lot of questions from friends and peers.
“I’ve had past high school guys ask me about that,” he said. “A friend from Wasilla, Hank (Boyer) and I were talking a couple days ago, and he’s like, ‘Man I didn’t know you’d play baseball in college, I thought you’d wrestle for sure.’
“I definitely miss all the great times with my buddies, and it was a great experience and I’m happy with where I’m at with baseball.”
Once he poured every ounce of commitment into baseball, opposing teams were in for some trouble.
From the mat to the diamond
Steffensen said in four years with the KCHS baseball team and two seasons with the Twins program (2018 is his third campaign with the Legion team), it is difficult to pinpoint one glaring accomplishment, although the 2016 state Legion championship is a good one.
His wrestling instincts have helped him on the diamond too, he said. When he’s batting, his reflexes and intelligence take over and lead to scoring opportunities.
“You don’t have a ton of time to think,” Steffensen explained. “You’re focusing on a release point, picking up the baseball and putting a hit on it. It’s instinct and anticipation. By the time the ball leaves the hand, you don’t have lot of time to commit to a swing.”
With his second and final year at Mesa CC approaching, Steffensen said he wants to use the season as a springboard to a bigger collegiate opportunity and perhaps a future on the professional level.
Time at the plate and time in the infield will help him, but Steffensen said the bottom line to his success is his faith.
“I look up to my family and my parents, but at the end of the day, I’m a Christian,” he said. “I know everyone is going to mess up sometimes, but I want to realize my salvation doesn’t depend on this.
“That’s what keeps me steady.”