INDEPENDENCE — Mackenzie Hupke was an eighth-grader with a mixture of excitement and nerves four years ago when she found out her family would be making the move from Storm Lake to Independence.
The girl who grew up surrounded by the collegiate softball teams her mom coached now had an opportunity to play high school ball for the woman she admired most.
“She’s coached me since I was a little girl,” Mackenzie said of her mom, Heather. “Being able to have her by my side through high school and knowing that I had five years left with her, I wanted her to be around it as much as she could. When the head coaching job opened up, I was just really excited.”
A junior committed to continue her softball career at Drake, Mackenzie can recall also being intimidated by moving across the state and finding new friends. She was able to meet her future Mustang teammates prior to the move and saw a tight-knit, driven group already holding each other accountable.
“I was really nervous for making friends, but everybody here was really welcoming,” Mackenzie said. “My grade was really supportive. You could ask anybody if you needed something and you knew they were there to help you.”
Prior to taking the high school head coaching job at Independence, Heather Hupke spent 12 seasons coaching Briar Cliff followed by six seasons as the head coach at her alma mater Buena Vista.
Through trips on her mom’s team bus and a dugout vantage point, Mackenzie says she gravitated toward the nature of a sport where so many different people contributed and worked to achieve a common goal.
“I just got to see the passion the girls had, and always had a role-model to look up to,” she said. “I wanted to be like them and also wanted to be like my mom since she was a pitcher when she was in college.”
Summers at the ballpark have always been treasured by the Hupke family. Mackenzie’s dad, Dewey — an umpire — initially met her mom on a softball diamond in one of their first years out of college. Mackenzie’s younger brother, Korver, is an avid baseball player entering his eighth-grade year.
“She’s one of those kids that she’s grown up in this game,” Heather said of her daughter, who also competed in track and for Independence’s state-qualifying volleyball team. “She likes those tight moments. When there’s more on it, she performs better. She’s focused in. She’s a pretty tough competitor, whether it’s volleyball, track or softball.”
Mackenzie Hupke has played a key role in the recent resurgence of a storied Independence softball program that hasn’t qualified for state since a string of six consecutive appearances ended in 2005.
The junior has worked to increase movement and command of four pitches, translating into a 0.92 ERA, 120 strikeouts versus 20 walks with a 15-1 record through 114 innings. Hupke is batting .403 with a home run and 24 RBIs for a 23-2 Mustang team that owns a No. 2 ranking in Class 4A.
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Beyond the impressive statistics, Hupke and her teammates have embraced a Buddhist term “Mudita” that means finding joy and happiness in the achievement of another. It’s a motto former Independence baseball coach Patrick Murphy’s Alabama softball team first embraced.
“Building those relationships and trust with your teammates, that’s huge,” Heather Hupke said. “The ball is going to get put in play against us so she’s got to know those teammates behind her have got her back and are going to take care of it. They’ve done a great job this year.”
Mackenzie is part of a six-player junior class that has seen the program rise from a 10-28 record their eighth-grade season to 17-23 as freshmen and 26-14 last season with a regional loss to eventual state qualifier Charles City.
“Knowing we were so young, we didn’t get down on ourselves,” Mackenzie said, addressing early struggles. “It just made us want to work that much harder.
“Last year after we lost our second-round game, we all kind of on the bus ride home said, ‘That’s enough. We’re going to work hard this offseason and we’re not going to be a team that people are going to want to play.’”
During open workouts, Mackenzie says she was excited by the focus and drive resonating from everyone who stepped into the gym. Her competitive nature is shared by her teammates.
“If somebody says something like, ‘Hey ground ball, that’s yours, you need to get that’, we hold each other accountable and none of us take it personal,” Mackenzie related. “It’s one of those things where we all know we’re looking out for the best interest of the team and we’re not trying to put each other down, we’re trying to reach our full potential.”
After opening the season with 13 consecutive wins, Independence recovered from its first two losses by going 9-0 last week — including a weekend tournament win at West Delaware. Following a full day of Saturday competition, the team was back in the weight room on Sunday.
“Everybody was energetic which was a really good thing to see,” Mackenzie recalled. “Sometimes you have a long, hot tournament and you may have a team that comes in and is dragging everywhere, but our team, we were back and all ready to go again.”
Beyond high school competition, Mackenzie says she was drawn to recent Missouri Valley Conference champion Drake’s softball program after attending their camp and getting a feel for their philosophy and expectations.
In her new home of Independence, the coach’s daughter is enjoying the importance her team has placed on putting their high school program back on the state’s radar.
“Softball historically in Independence has been a very successful program,” said Mackenzie. “Seeing my eighth-grade year how much it struggled, we just set a goal that we wanted to get back to what Independence used to be and being a competitive team again.”