Ten years ago, 8-year-old Callie Bircher and her 11-year-old brother, Chase, seemed well on their way to promising basketball careers.
That all changed one August afternoon in 2003 when Chase Bircher lost his life in a drowning accident.
Before Chase’s death, he and his sister spent hour upon hour honing their basketball skills with their father, Mark.
“Callie was a basketball junkie as a kid,” Mark Bircher said. “She followed her two older brothers everywhere and there was always a basketball involved.”
That stopped when Chase died.
“It just wasn’t the same because he was always there with you and then you go back and do it and he wasn’t there,” Callie said. “It just wasn’t as fun. It just didn’t feel right.”
Basketball may not have felt right, but athletics were ingrained in Callie, so rather than quitting altogether, she poured her focus and grief into a new goal — becoming a top-notch softball pitcher.
“I still wanted to play a sport and I still wanted to be good at a sport and work at it, but I just didn’t necessarily want it to be basketball,” she said. “So I went to softball and I just loved it. I started pitching and I loved it.”
Working on her pitching helped Callie deal with her brother’s death.
“Pitching gave her something to focus on at a very difficult time in her young life,” Mark said. “It has remained a big part of her life ever since.”
With the help of private pitching coach Chip Higinbotham, Callie picked up the skills quickly.
“She was very raw, but she was one of those kids that listened intently and was just a sponge,” Higinbotham said. “She takes in everything you say, listens and then works on it, not only when she is with you, but with work on her own.”
The girl who once appeared destined to be a standout high school basketball player turned into one of the best pitchers in Snohomish County. She has pitched nearly every game the past three years for the Glacier Peak High School softball team and will attempt to lead the Grizzlies to the state tournament for the first time next spring.
This summer Bircher honed her skills playing for the Washington Hurricanes, a local select softball team, and filled in with another, the Washington Warriors.
When Bircher isn’t pitching in select tournaments, she spends her summer working on her game with Higinbotham or her father.
“I pitch all the time with my dad,” she said. “Pretty much every day I’m at Glacier Peak doing pitching workouts with him.”
Bircher was among the top pitchers in the Wesco 3A this past spring, but was overshadowed by Meadowdale’s Alyssa Reuble, who was considered one of the best in the state. Reuble has graduated, leaving the door open for a new pitcher to dominate.
The most likely candidate is Bircher.
“She threw almost every inning for us last year,” Glacier Peak coach Caitlin Nies said. “So she is our veteran and we trust her. I’m just excited to see what she does next year.”
She might just have a few new tricks up her sleeve.
“With the one or two pitches we are going to add in the offseason, she is going to be even that more dominant next year,” Higinbotham said.
These days, it’s not often that Bircher finds herself in trouble from the pitchers’ circle. But when she does, she turns to the person who inspired her to be there in the first place — Chase.
Callie wears a bracelet created by the Todd family that bears Chase’s name. Jackson High School alum Ryan Todd was close friends with Chase and wears a similar bracelet, as does his younger brother and current Jackson High School basketball star Jason Todd.
“Every time I’m in a stressful situation like bases loaded with two outs, or when we are up by one (run), or even when I’m not doing good when I’m walking people or people are getting hits off of me, I always will take a deep breath and look at my (bracelet) and look up and just talk to him,” she said. “I’m just like, ‘C’mon Chase, you’ve got to get me through this one.’ I will just talk to him. He has driven me to be super good at softball because he was so driven to be super good at basketball.”
While pitching has helped Callie deal with the loss of her brother and best friend, it’s also helped the rest of the family, especially her dad.
“When Callie decided to try pitching, it gave us both something new and different to focus on,” Mark said. “How to pitch a softball was something that I knew very little about and it became an activity that Callie and I could work on together. Her energy and spunk was contagious, and when she came to me with determination in her eyes and the desire to improve, I couldn’t refuse.
“Over the years, I have logged countless hours sitting on a bucket catching her or throwing batting practice to her. It was time that we were able to spend together and I’m privileged to have been there with her.”
Aaron Lommers covers prep sports for The Herald. Follow him on twitter @aaronlommers and contact him at email@example.com.