An excited kid came up to Paul Steffensen after a game this year with one of Steffensen’s foul balls.
“I told him that used to be me,” said Steffensen, a 2017 graduate of Kenai Central High School.
The moment crystalizes just how far and just how fast Steffensen has come as a baseball player.
The Steffensen name has always been firmly attached to wrestling in Kenai.
Stan, Paul’s father, is a three-time state champion in South Dakota, an All-American wrestler at Huron University (South Dakota) and a longtime wrestling coach at Kenai Central High School and Kenai Middle School.
All four of the Steffensen children — Ellery, Hope, Paul and Daniel — have won national titles at freestyle, folkstyle and Greco-Roman.
So Paul had just one season of Little League under his belt when he signed up to play baseball for Kenai Central as a freshman. Not having enough balls with which to practice, he would attend Oilers games and chase down foul balls.
“It definitely made it easier to practice hitting,” Steffensen said. “I didn’t have to stop and pick up balls as much.”
After winning state wrestling titles as a freshman and sophomore, Steffensen left wrestling to pursue baseball.
What followed was a head-spinning succession of success that ultimately led to Steffensen, in late April of this year, becoming to first player from the American Legion Twins program to sign to play at a Division I school. Steffensen will play at Tennessee Tech.
Steffensen didn’t even play Legion ball until 2016, the summer after his junior year. The Twins would win state that year and Steffensen would be named MVP of the tournament.
After more success with the Kardinals and Twins in 2017, Steffensen signed to play at Mesa Community College and began his career with a 26-game hitting streak, hitting .404 to take the Arizona Community College Athletic Association batting title.
This season, Steffensen hit .319 and Mesa took second in the National Junior College Athletic Association Division II World Series.
He then came back to play for his hometown Oilers, finishing a dizzying, five-year journey from the kid collecting foul balls to the man hitting them.
“Really?” said Oilers hitting coach Rolando Sanchez when informed of the journey. “I had no idea he only had that much baseball experience. I’m going to ask him about that tomorrow.”
In 2018, both Twins general manager Lance Coz and former KCHS head coach John Kennedy told Oilers head coach Kyle Brown about Steffensen. Brown said Steffensen should get in touch, but it never happened because Steffensen wanted to spend the summer working and take a break from the game. He did manage to slip in games with the Twins between work shifts.
Sanchez coaches at Benedictine University at Mesa, so Brown told his hitting coach to watch Steffensen this year and make sure Steffensen would fit in with the Oilers.
“Rolando said he’d be a good fit and can play at this level,” Brown said.
Steffensen was already fielding offers from other summer leagues, but when Sanchez reached out, Steffensen returned home.
The 5-foot-9, 200-pounder played in 33 games during the regular season, hitting .196 with 12 runs, seven RBIs and a home run.
While Steffensen said he saw the quality of pitching at Mesa that he’s seeing with the Oilers, he said teams in Arizona didn’t have the ABL’s quantity of quality pitching.
More than the pitching, though, Steffensen said he is learning about the grind of daily baseball. By going all the way to the World Series, he played 67 games in college this year.
“It’s definitely the longest I’ve ever played baseball for,” Steffensen said. “It’s mentally tiring and it’s physically tiring.”
Despite the low batting average, Steffensen has helped the team with his speed in center field and his clubhouse presence.
“He’s my spark plug,” Brown said. “He’s a quiet kid, but he supplies energy to the team that other guys don’t.”
Brown also said Steffensen sets a sterling example in the areas of diet, hydration and sleep. He said that’s extremely important because all of the above can suffer during a summer of traveling around Alaska.
Steffensen said his focus on nutrition began in the eighth grade, when his cross-country coach talked to the team about it.
“I thought, ‘I’ll see how it goes. It might be important,’” he said.
As he has progressed up each level, he finds more and more people focus on nutrition. This makes it easier for him to hone his approach, because he has more people to bounce ideas off of.
Obviously, when Steffensen was doing things like cross-country and wrestling, he wasn’t collecting baseball experience. He said his experience with other sports will help him as he enters Division I baseball.
“I think I have the least amount of baseball experience of anybody on this team,” Steffensen said. “At the same time, with wrestling and playing other sports, I think that as an athlete I’m where they are or better.”
Tennessee Tech is a program on the rise, with eight players selected in the 2018 MLB First-Year Player Draft, and one more signing as a free agent. The Golden Eagles earned an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament and won the Oxford Regional title, taking down No. 2 Ole Miss in the process.
“They are a very good hitting school,” Sanchez said. “I know Mesa likes to play small ball. Tennessee Tech bangs hits. I think he’ll flourish.”
Steffensen said the goal of every Division I player is to get drafted. Steffensen is quick on the bases and in the outfield, so he knows a lot will ride on how he hits. That’s why he chose Tennessee Tech without even making a visit to the school.
“You can get drafted on hitting alone,” he said. “So many things go into hitting. It’s the toughest thing to do in sports.”
Steffensen said he is open to playing another season with the Oilers, thanking the coaching staff and general manager Victoria Smith for all they have done for him. He said his return depends not only on his future, but that of the Oilers, who have struggled financially this season.
“Hopefully, we can keep the Oilers around for many more seasons to come,” he said.