Athena Clendaniel has managed to do what few student-athletes are able to pull off.
Balancing athletics and academics can be a difficult enough task. Excelling in both arenas is an even greater challenge.
Not only has Clendaniel broken barriers as a baseball pitcher for West High, she’s also among the school’s most decorated students.
She started playing baseball as a youth and has become one of the few girls to compete at the varsity level in Alaska. While the senior won’t be completely leaving the sport behind after graduation this month, academics will be her primary focus going forward.
“I love baseball and sports are a huge part of my life, but eventually I won’t be playing them for much longer and the academics part is even more important,” Clendaniel said. “The student comes first in student-athlete.”
Her passion for baseball was ignited when she was 5 years old, after her dad signed her up for T-ball.
“I just fell in love with it right then and there,” Clendaniel said. “Since then, baseball is what I’ve done every single summer and I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.”
Her dedication is evident from her long list of accolades in both arenas. In addition to being the team’s top relief pitcher and starting first baseman, Clendaniel graduated summa cum laude with a GPA of 4.37, is president of the National Honor Society and will attend Princeton University, a prestigious Ivy League institution.
“She’s the first to arrive, last to leave, leads by example, leads in the classroom, everything,” West head baseball coach Dane Kreischer said.
“She has been a success in everything she has done and is going to be a success in everything she does,” he added.
Developing a love for the game
Growing up, Clendaniel wasn’t aware of any girls playing baseball at any level until she heard about Lauren Frost.
“She is a couple years older than me and she played baseball at Eagle River High School,” Clendaniel said. “My dad saw an article about her in the paper, and at that moment he realized that I could keep playing baseball through high school if I wanted to and kept pushing myself.”
Unlike most young girls who show interest in baseball, Clendaniel never turned to softball as an alternative. Even though it could’ve provided her an easier path to playing time and perhaps even a college scholarship, she resolved to play the sport she’s most passionate about.
“I get those questions a lot, especially as I grew up and kept playing with the guys and they got bigger and stronger, but when I prove myself on the field, the questions seem to stop coming,” Clendaniel said. “When people ask that question, I tell them that I love baseball and I think that it is the best game on the earth and there is nothing I’d rather do.”
She’s a lifelong Seattle Mariners fan, and her favorite player of all time is former Mariners ace pitcher Felix Hernandez. Clendaniel witnessed Hernandez’s legendary perfect game live in person in 2012.
She’s one of only two seniors on the team this season and is a captain. It’s a group she’s been with since Little League.
“I kind of naturally fell into that leadership role as a captain, and this year I know we have the talent to win games, do well and hopefully make it to state,” Clendaniel said. “I’m hoping that I can inspire some greatness out of these guys and get us some W’s on the field.”
She feels like she’s had a fairly unusual journey as a girl playing baseball, with nothing but support and no badgering from teammates.
“For the most part, I’ve been super lucky,” Clendaniel said. “All my teammates, I’ve been playing with most of these guys since little league when we were 9 and 10 and they’ve all been super supportive.”
Fans and other parents are generally encouraging as well. Clendaniel said she hasn’t encountered any hostility or negativity, and even when she does get heckled, it’s been playful and, she said, generally welcomed.
“Just some friendly heckling, and I actually kind of enjoy it because I think that it means that the guys respect me,” Clendaniel said. “Some teams heckle other pitchers and not me, and that’s fine too, but when they heckle me I actually enjoy it. I really haven’t faced any negative comments from opposing teams and coaches.”
An emphasis on academics
Founded in 1746 and the fourth-oldest institution of higher education in the country, Princeton has very rigorous admission standards with an acceptance rate of around 6%.
“I’m super excited,” Clendaniel said last month. “I just visited campus this past week and it’s amazing. It’s beautiful. I’m so excited to meet all these new people and continue my education there.”
West principal Sven Gustafson has known Clendaniel since she was in the seventh grade and he was the principal at Romig Middle School at the time.
“Athena is an amazing student,” Gustafson said. “She is top notch, Russian immersion, all the upper-level courses. She is the epitome of an amazing student and complete student-athlete.”
Despite her love for the game, she never strongly considered making it a priority as she transitioned out of high school.
“I’ve always pushed myself in the classroom, and I know that baseball is fun and a great way to relieve stress and I love being on the field. But I know that my future needs to be strong in academics, and that is going to help me later on in life,” Clendaniel said.
But she might try to mix her passion for baseball into a career. She said she’s considering majoring in psychology and is interested in kinesiology.
“I’m really curious and want to learn more about the physical and mental side of sports,” Clendaniel said. “My dream job would be with some professional sports team like (in) the MLB.”
As a left-handed pitcher, she takes that interest in the mental approach to her own game. After games, she spends time thinking about what worked, what didn’t work and which specific hitters do well with certain pitches.
“I don’t throw that fast, so I rely on my off-speed pitches and locating,” she added. “My mindset for pitching is that I need to pound strikes in the zone, hopefully keep hitters off balance with my couple different off-speed pitches.”
Creating opportunities in the sport and around the state
She has been an advocate for girls and women’s baseball with her work as an ambassador for Baseball For All, which is a nonprofit focused on building gender equity by creating “opportunities for girls to play, coach and lead in the sport.”
Clendaniel has organized and led local youth girls camps in the Anchorage area for girls interested in playing with boys. With many colleges starting to build up women’s baseball programs, Kreischer says that it is encouraging to see work like hers pay off. He was an assistant for West last year and first became acquainted with Clendaniel when she invited him to help coach at one the camps she organized.
“There was 25 to 30 girls there, and some of them never played baseball before — they were going the softball route and were pretty excited,” Kreischer said. “By the time they left, the Anchorage little league had more girls sign up than they had in the last five years, so the impact is immediate for what she’s doing.”
According to Kreischer, Clendaniel is one of two girls playing at the varsity level in Alaska, and the only pitcher. He said the other varsity player is Monroe Catholic sophomore Nadia Chernich.
Clendaniel is the first girl to ever play baseball at West, but she hopes she inspires the next generation to follow in her footsteps, even if they have just a general interest in the sport.
“Obviously there are not enough girls playing the sport right now,” Clendaniel said. “What I’m trying to do is to just get more girls in the game and let them know that baseball is an option.”
She plans to put on more camps in the future in the summers to let young women know that there is a realistic avenue for them if they want to play the sport. Her hope is that one day, there will be full girls baseball leagues and teams.
Collegiate athletic aspirations
Clendaniel is also the two-time defending Alaska state tennis champion in girls singles. She plans to join club teams in both baseball and tennis at Princeton.
“Hopefully once I settle in at Princeton, I can start a women’s club baseball team there, and I think it could be super successful considering that they have a DI softball team already,” she said.
She is sure that at least a couple of young women on the softball team come from a baseball background, and even if they don’t, “A lot of the girls that play women’s club already have no baseball experience and it’s about getting more women out on the field.”
Clendaniel is excited about relocating to the East Coast, where there are more opportunities for her to continue to play the sport, even if it isn’t for a sanctioned NCAA program through the university. The first women’s college club baseball tournament was held in March and most of the teams were from the West Coast. Montclair State University in New Jersey was the one exception.
“There are a lot of girls baseball programs across the country,” Clendaniel said. “We unfortunately don’t have any here in Alaska, but there are multiple programs in the New Jersey area — and I’m hoping to get involved with those.”