Sisters put their faith into action while instructing young softball players

KAUKAUNA — Laura (Van Abel) Beyer and Maria Van Abel will never forget their first softball camp together as instructors three or four years ago. A young girl, age 11 or 12, didn’t like any attention and didn’t want to be there.

“She hated us,” said Beyer. “I said to Maria, ‘You deal with her.’ There was clearly something going wrong.”

Holy Cross Church of Kaukauna parishioners Maria Van Abel, left, and her sister Laura Beyer are pictured at Legion Park in Little Chute before the start of a softball camp Aug. 30 for area youth. (Brad Birkholz | For The Compass)

Despite the rough start, the girl is now a regular at 360U, the sisters’ skills-based softball development business.

“She has done a complete 180,” said Beyer. “Her dad has passed away from cancer. Now she looks at us like we are her big sisters. Her brother was just in an accident. For a kid like that, this is why we do it. It’s those relationships. You’ve taken a kid who could have gone in a really bad direction and now she looks at us like role models.”

While they hope to help players become all-stars on the field, the mission of 360U is also about developing better people. This approach is rooted in their Catholic faith. Beyer and Van Abel are members of Holy Cross Parish and graduates of Holy Cross School. The sisters credit their parents, Mike and Diane Van Abel, for helping them keep things in focus during their youth.

“Our priorities were clear cut: faith, family and sports in that order. There was no gray area,” said Beyer. “It was great. We’ve been able to keep a real healthy perspective in our careers. You see a lot of athletes today where the sport defines their relationships with their parents and their lives.”

“There was no missing church,” said Van Abel. “I was thankful that my college coach was very flexible. There weren’t many girls in college going to Mass. We would be in Nebraska playing and we would Google Catholic churches that we could walk to before games. It was really cool that I was supported by my coach.”

Van Abel walked on the softball team at the University of Wisconsin and earned a scholarship. She started in centerfield for the Badgers all four seasons and was team captain her senior year. Beyer was a four-year starter at shortstop at UW-Stevens Point and a team captain.

While in college, Van Abel worked as an instructor at an Appleton sports complex for Beyer’s eventual husband Scott, the softball coach at UW-Oshkosh. Laura, who had been working in De Pere, was interested in providing lessons, so she joined them. The Beyers are parents to 3-year-old son, Will.

“Scott was my boss for one summer,” explained Beyer. “We liked the idea of working full-time with the softball athletes. Next thing we knew, we decided to do it on our own and make it a girls-only thing.

“In the summers we would hop from batting cage to batting cage outdoors and pray for no rain,” she added. “We traveled to high schools and put on camps. They would provide the space for us. We were fortunate to be able to pull in players from the UW-Oshkosh softball team.”

They eventually found a building on Hwy 55 in Kaukauna, which formerly housed two auto shops. It was transformed to the “U” facility.

“We knew it would work,” said Van Abel. “We didn’t know how we could scale it and make a living off of it. We both have business degrees. People were surprised that this is what we wanted to do. I knew that we could do it together.”

The facility is equipped with everything one would expect for softball training— batting cages, tees, buckets of balls and pitcher’s screens. Stacks of journals stored in milk crates along a wall represent their expanded mission.

“Every athlete who comes here has a ‘U Book.’ Before we do any softball stuff, we ask them to ‘Write down three things you are really good at,’” explained Beyer. “Then we say, ‘What did you do awesome today?’”

“We ask for ‘one thing you did awesome and one thing you need to work on,’” said Van Abel. “We start with the positive.

“When doing a lesson with athletes, when I ask them to ‘tell me a strength of yours in softball,’ it is often shocking,” she added. “They respond, ‘I’m not sure, maybe, kind of.’ It’s crazy. At the end of the time, I will ask, ‘Do you have an answer now?’”

The “Word of the Week” is another way 360U promotes self-growth. The athletes are encouraged to build on the word on the field or when training and away from the game. “Confidence” was a recent word choice.

“Help someone in your school become more confident. How do you become more confident? What we do is probably about 60 percent athletics and 40 percent self-development,” said Beyer. “The feedback we get from all of our parents is our athletes are so much more confident after they leave. That’s what we take pride in. If we are not teaching them life skills then we are failing them.”

Beyer finds comfort in being around the athletes after an extremely difficult time in her life. She and Scott lost a baby at 36 weeks in July.

“I was on bed rest. For nine months I wasn’t able to do any lessons,” she said. “It gives you energy in your soul again to be back at a job where you are grinding. We are very faithful. We named her Grace at 20 weeks. We just believe that she is an angel who we were supposed to carry. I had a sense during the pregnancy that I would have to give her back to God. It sounds crazy to say it out loud, but there were two times that I told my husband, ‘I think I’m carrying an angel. I think she is going to have to go back to God for whatever reason.’ Now we see signs of her all the time. So many people were praying and finding their faith.”

“Already being a faith-filled family, (Grace) brought us so much closer, even our extended family and friends who have watched Laura go through this gracefully with faith at the forefront,” said Van Abel. “She was going through this and was so strong.”

Fr. Willie Van De Loo, a family friend, presided at Grace’s funeral. He will be the celebrant at Van Abel’s wedding in March. She is marrying Joel Stave, another successful walk-on athlete for the Badgers. The sisters also point to Fr. Jack Mullarkey for his influence on their faith journeys.

The sisters continue to grow 360U, which served approximately 1,200 athletes last year.

“We hope to develop a web-based subscription to provide training for athletes we can’t reach physically,” said Van Abel. “We want to open a library of hitting drills, confidence building talks, interviews with coaches.”

The days can be long, but the opportunity to help young players keeps the sisters energized.

“It’s a lot of softball some days and weeks, but it’s never draining,” said Van Abel. “We get loud, crazy and excited. You are here developing life skills, so it doesn’t get old.”