Coaches tried moving her to other positions. Teammates told her she’d never make it in college if she insisted on playing behind the plate.
But rather than succumb to convention, Sharla Kliebenstein made it her mission to demonstrate that being left-handed isn’t necessarily a hindrance as a catcher.
"That kind of just motivated me to prove to everyone else I can catch just as well as a right-handed catcher," Kliebenstein said.
Bank of Hawaii Invitational
» When: Today-Sunday Today: Weber State vs. South Dakota State, 4 p.m.; Hawaii vs. St. Bonaventure, 6 p.m.
» Where: Rainbow Wahine Softball Stadium
» TV: None
» Radio: UH games on KHKA, 1500-AM today and tomorrow
So far, the Hawaii freshman has shown she can handle college-level pitching both in and behind the batter’s box.
In her first year at Manoa, Kliebenstein was entrusted with calling pitches for a seasoned UH pitching staff and has caught all 103 innings for the Rainbow Wahine this season with five more games coming up this weekend in the Bank of Hawaii Invitational.
No. 14/16 UH (12-4) opens the tournament against St. Bonaventure (0-0) today at 6 p.m., weather permitting. The Wahine face South Dakota State (0-9) and Weber State (0-3) tomorrow. The tournament concludes with bracket play on Sunday.
Along with handling a pitching staff led by returnees Stephanie Ricketts and Kaia Parnaby, Kliebenstein has provided offensive punch for the Wahine. She enters the week hitting .326 and is second on the team in home runs (six), runs batted in (14) and slugging percentage (.791), trailing only shortstop Jessica Iwata in those categories.
Kliebenstein, who hits from the right side, launched five home runs during UH’s 11-game road trip spread over the past two weeks. She hit two in a 12-3 win over Cal State Northridge in the Louisville Slugger Desert Classic and sparked UH’s win over then-No. 6 Oklahoma in the Cathedral City Classic with a solo homer.
Both Kliebenstein and UH head coach Bob Coolen credited the team’s strength program for her early power surge as she concentrated on solidifying her foundation to prepare for the wear of a college schedule.
"Her legs were something we worked on in the fall," Coolen said. "She struggled in the weight room and she noticed she was a little behind as far as her leg strength was concerned and that has helped with her hitting."
Kliebenstein said she hadn’t been in a formal weight-lifting program prior to enrolling at UH, conceding that "when I first came here the bar was heavy for me."
"I was shocked by how much you use your legs to hit," she said. "When you swing and use your leg power the ball just flies off the bat."
Defensively, Kliebenstein’s throwing ability prompted a youth league coach to try her at catcher when she was only 5. But that aspect of the game is also the primary argument against having a left-handed catcher at the higher levels. The prevailing theory holds that throws to second and third are more difficult with right-handed hitters in the box.
Kliebenstein counters that, "just like a right-hander catcher has advantages and disadvantages, I have advantages, too."
As she continues to settle into her role, Coolen would like to see Kliebenstein make the pickoff to first — an easier throw for a left-hander — a more prominent part of the Wahine defense.
Although Kliebenstein was a full-time catcher growing up, she played center field her freshman and sophomore years at El Camino High in San Diego. She finally convinced her high school coach to let her catch as a junior and she hasn’t budged from that spot since.
Upon arriving at UH, Kliebenstein stepped in for Katie Grimes, who started all 65 games last season, and connected quickly with Ricketts and Parnaby in fall practices to get a feel for their approaches to pitch selection.
"They all fell in sync with Sharla’s pitch calling," Coolen said. "She just needs to take more of a leadership role back there. … That will come with maturity and right now it’s a matter of she needs to develop that feeling for the complete game."
While left-handed catchers remain something of a rarity, it could become a trend at UH. Coolen, himself a lefty, has already signed another left-handed catcher/first baseman to next year’s freshman class, Kayla Wartner of Escondido (Calif.) High.