”Then and Now” is a new series that focuses on former Treasure Valley high school athletes and where they’re at now.

Vanessa Hoke wasn’t a household name in high school.

The ex-Kuna softball player didn’t make a single All-4A Southern Idaho Conference team and hardly saw the field for that matter. But now, the recent Columbia Basin College graduate, was her team’s starting ace this past season.

“When people doubt me, it kind of pushes me harder to accomplish what I want to accomplish,” Hoke said. “I’m going to show you what I can do. And that’s what I’ve been doing. So I’m honestly very thankful for where I’m at now.”

The Kuna native actually played baseball first. She didn’t even know softball existed until a year later.

She began pitching at 12 and spent a few years on club teams like the Boise Blast before joining the Kuna High softball program.

Hoke was the junior varsity team’s starting pitching during her first two years. She seemed poised to take the reins on varsity, but ended up being left out of the rotation and the starting lineup.

It was supposed to be a pitching duel between her and Rylee Newman. But Michala Kleffner went from third-stringer to starter after a few games.

Hoke, meanwhile, was regulated to the role of pinch hitter and base runner. She watched as Kleffner led Kuna to SIC and District III titles, along with a third-place finish at state. Kleffner was also named the SIC Co-Player of the Year.

“I feel like if I was given an opportunity, I could have really showed my talent,” Hoke said. “But sometimes the coach’s perspective on the game is a little bit different than yours.

“It was a little difficult, but I was really happy for Mickey because she was doing really well. I was really proud of what she accomplished. I always cheered her on.”

It all led to Hoke making a difficult decision. Already signed on at Columbia Basin in Pasco, Washington, and with her father Ryan battling Castleman disease, a non-cancerous disease of the lymph nodes, she elected to skip her final season. It meant Hoke couldn’t play on the Boise Blast either because of a rule that states players can’t compete for club teams during the high school season.

So Hoke didn’t play any softball for three months. She practiced alone and turned her attention to weightlifting.

“I was really on the fence about it,” Hoke said. “But I really thought it was the best thing for me at the time. I just wanted to work on strengthening up my body for college and getting prepared.”

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Hoke finally saw the field again in February 2018, but only for a moment. She injured her right ankle three games in while rounding first base at practice. The trainer originally chalked it up to a simple sprain. But weeks turned into months with little to no improvement.

Numerous X-rays came back negative before an MRI was finally ordered. But it never happened because Hoke’s insurance refused to cover the MRI. The company said proper procedures within their coverage had not been followed. So Hoke couldn’t file for a medical redshirt.

It resulted in her losing a full year of eligibility.

Hoke was finally cleared for an MRI last July. But by that time she was contemplating walking away.

“I didn’t really know if I was going to be coming back because I didn’t know what was going on. I didn’t know what was wrong with my ankle. And I just kind of wanted to be there for my dad,” Hoke said. “But my dad said, ‘No. I want to watch you play college softball.’”

The MRI revealed a tendon in her ankle had popped out of place. It would require surgery and a 6-12 month recovery time. But doctors told her she could still play on it with some discomfort.

And that’s exactly what Hoke did this season with the help of some tape, wrap and an ankle brace.

Hoke, 20, led the Hawks in innings pitched, wins, strikeouts and ERA. She went 6-4 in 12 starts with 77 strikeouts to 38 walks and a 5.56 ERA in 84.2 innings pitched.

Her highlights included a season-high eight strikeouts in a 7-6 win against Blue Mountain Community College and a five-hit complete game shutout with four strikeouts in a 2-0 win over Wenatchee Valley on April 16.

She had the 13th best ERA, gave up the eighth fewest hits (113), the seventh fewest walks and was 20th in strikeouts in the Northwest Athletic Conference. Columbia Basin College qualified for the conference tournament as a result.

However, Hoke won’t pitch in another game. Her upcoming surgery makes it nearly impossible to sign on with another school.

She plans on taking a year off before she hopes to enroll at the University of Arizona to major in psychology.

Hoke has still made a name for herself, though.

“The ride has been up and down, like a roller coaster,” Hoke said. “Life throws stuff at you and you just have to persevere through it. The one thing I would say to everyone out there is never give up on what you believe in and just keep pushing. If you do that, you will get what you want.”

Brandon Walton covers Ada County and College of Idaho sports for the Idaho Press.

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