Partain thrives on Minnesota diamond
Going from Banks to Minneapolis, Minnesota, could and likely would be a bit shell-shocking for anyone, let alone an 18-year-old with admittedly little knowledge of the school or state. But for Banks' Makenna Partain, it's been one of the best decisions of her young life.
"It's hard work, but it's been the most fun I've ever had playing softball, going to school, and being with my friends."
The highly decorated Braves athlete — whose career included four Cowapa League Player of the Year Awards, three Oregon School Activities Association 4A State Player of the Year awards, two state softball championships and a state volleyball championship for good measure — earned the starting second base position for the Golden Gophers to start the year, and didn't disappoint.
The standout freshman started all 61 games for a team that finished 56-5 overall, won a Big Ten championship and ultimately lost to Alabama in the finals of an NCAA Regional. She hit .380, reached base at a nearly 50 percent clip, earned NFCA Great Lakes All-Region third-team honors and was a top-25 NFCA Freshman of the Year finalist.
Sounds easy, huh? Don't tell that to Partain, who said the transition from a tiny town like Banks to a school of 60,000 was difficult at first.
"I was really homesick early on and even contemplated coming home on occasion," said the ex-Brave. "But my parents and some of my teammates who could relate to what I was feeling helped me through it, and I eventually fell in love with Minnesota."
Then there's the work.
Partain said she had an idea of what to expect as part of a Division I softball program, but the reality of it exceeded her expectations and opened her eyes to the commitment necessary to succeed.
"I knew it was going to be a lot of work, but until you're there you don't understand how much work it is," she said. "It's early morning lifts, conditioning, practice later in the day, classes, you have to eat, and maybe a nap if you're lucky, but it's a lot. It's pretty crazy."
And the competition? Partain played high-level travel ball prior to her time at Minnesota, so she'd competed with and against a lot of Division I talent. But even that experience couldn't have prepared her for the heightened level of competition she faced in the Big Ten and on a national scale.
"It's definitely a whole other level," she said.
Her teammate, fellow freshman Kendyl Lindaman, was honored as the Big Ten Freshman Player of the Year and was selected as a first-team All-American by the NFCA.
"She's amazing," Partain said with a chuckle. "When she'd hit in batting practice our outfielders would just stand still, knowing every ball was going out of the park."
So how did a girl from Banks end up going to school and playing softball in a state she knew so little about? Simply put — coaching.
Partain felt a connection and formed a bond with Minnesota head coach Jessica Allister before she even got on campus.
"I will argue with anyone that I have the best coach anywhere," she emphatically said.
She said she and Allister would often have phone conversations prior to her commitment about everything but softball. They'd talk about her family, how school was going and then eventually softball and how much she looked forward to watching Partain in her upcoming tournament or game.
"She showed me she genuinely cared about me and not just me the softball player," she said, "and that went a long way."
Partain's family and friends were fortunate to get to see her play during a spring break trip that started with a handful of games in Seattle and ended in Stockton, California, with a game at Oregon State sandwiched in between.
"It was really cool to play at Oregon State and my family all got to go," Partain said. "It was hilarious because we played on a Monday afternoon and the only people really there were the people cheering for me."
Partain has been home for nearly a month and will spend much of her summer assistant coaching for the Northwest Bullets 16-under team. The first-year coach has enjoyed the experience thus far and says it provides a different perspective to the game.
"Coaching is cool," she said. "It's really different and frustrating at times because you're not in the action to make a difference. But it's fun watching the girls make plays and has actually taught me different things about the game. It's pretty rewarding."
And what about the girls and teams she left behind at Banks? Has she forgotten about them? Absolutely not.
"I'm still pretty close to those girls and talk to some of them regularly on the phone," Partain said. "I still want them to win even though I'm not there."
The soon-to-be-sophomore is already looking forward to next season and thinks - in spite of them losing their number-one pitcher — they'll again be formidable. The Gophers return their entire infield, two outfielders and all-star catcher Lindaman from a team that was a win away from a trip to the super regionals.
"This team works incredibly hard," Partain said. "Losing sucked, but it showed us what we need to get better at to get where we want to go, and I'm excited about it."