Profile of Excellence: Two of a Kind - Cousins Mary-Clare Couillard (Hamline) and Ben Buerkle (Saint Mary’s)

Profile of Excellence: Two of a Kind - Cousins Mary-Clare Couillard (Hamline) and Ben Buerkle (Saint Mary’s)

By Rich Mies, Special to the MIAC

Finding two or more family members that are talented enough to be college student-athletes is rare enough. For them to be on the playing fields during the same four-year stretch is even more unusual. The odds of both being All-Conference and All-Region players and Academic All-American honorees at the same time are up there with winning the lottery. Yet first cousins Mary-Clare Couillard and Ben Buerkle have accomplished all that. Couillard is a softball standout at Hamline, while Buerkle stars on the Saint Mary's baseball team.

"Our moms are sisters," Buerkle said. ""I enjoy seeing the success she is having. I don't get to see her play, but I do check their results and her stats regularly."

"It's pretty awesome to have a cousin doing some pretty great things at this level," noted Couillard, who is the older of the two. "He's had a fantastic career and that's been really fun to watch (never in person though because we are both so busy with our respective seasons).  I think that the best part for me is that we were both named as Academic All-Americans, showing how well-rounded both of us are."

They grew up not far apart- Couillard in Fridley and Buerkle in Roseville. Both are middle children in athletic families. Couillard has four older brothers and a younger brother. "They all played at least one sport in high school," she said. "So far, I'm the only one to play in college but my younger brother is a senior in high school."

Buerkle's father played collegiate basketball at St. Thomas. His older sister played basketball and ran track in high school and is now an Associate Sports Information Director at Minnesota. His older brother and younger sister played high school sports.

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Couillard followed her older brothers to St. Anthony Village for high school. There, she played volleyball and basketball as well as softball. In volleyball, she missed her junior season due to an injury, but was an All-Conference setter as a sophomore and again as a senior.

She shined on the diamond, starting at shortstop nearly every game from the beginning of her freshman season through the end of her senior year. Couillard was a four-time All-Conference player and helped the Huskies to state tournament berths in three of her four seasons. "We lost in the middle rounds of Section play my sophomore year," she recalled. "It was quite the upset."

They took second in the state in Couillard's sophomore year, fourth her freshman season and won the consolation championship in her senior campaign. Couillard was named to the All-State Tournament Team as a junior and again as a senior.

Away from sports, she was a member of the National Honor Society and served as SAVHS chapter president in her senior year. Couillard was active in the student council and was chosen Homecoming Queen her senior year.

She was recruited by the softball coaches from many local Division III schools but quickly narrowed her options down to Gustavus Adolphus and Hamline. Ultimately, she decided on Hamline. "I wanted a school that was close to home," she said. "I wanted a school with strong academics. I liked how Hamline felt. I liked the balance of academics and softball and it just seemed like a good fit for me."

Couillard has had a big impact on the Piper program from her first days on campus. She shifted over to second base, as Hamline was set at shortstop with Jamie Rubbelke. Couillard and Rubbelke clicked and quickly became one of the premier middle-infield combinations in the area. That season, Hamline posted a 12-8 record in MIAC play, good enough for fifth place, narrowly missing out on the final spot in the MIAC Playoffs. Couillard had a solid season, batting .388, with 45 hits, seven RBI and nine stolen bases; she score 22 runs. She was named All-MIAC Honorable Mention in a vote of the league's coaches.

    
HU's Mary-Clare Couillard has been a key member of the Piper's infield for four years.
(Photo Courtesy of Hamline Athletics) 

In Couillard's sophomore season, Hamline rolled to a 17-5 record in conference play, bringing home second place honors behind Bethel. Couillard's play was a key to the Pipers' success. She pounded out 29 hits in MIAC play, fifth most in the league.  She was fourth in runs scored (17) and batting average (.420). The coaches named her First Team All-MIAC. In the league playoffs, Hamline lost twice, falling to Gustavus 6-0 and Bethel 12-0 to close the season 27-13. For the full season, she hit .403, with 58 hits, 18 RBI and six stolen bases.

Last spring, the Pipers went 15-7 in MIAC play, tying for third with St. Catherine. They were awarded the fourth seed in the MIAC Playoffs. They lost a tough 3-2 decision to St Thomas in the opening round, but bounced back to beat Gustavus 5-3 before falling 3-0 to St. Catherine; they ended the year 26-17.

Couillard was named to the All-MIAC First Team, as she was among the league leaders in run (with 17), hits (29), batting average (.420) and on-base percent (.467). Her full-seasons stats were even more impressive and landed her a spot on the NFCA All-Midwest Third Team.

This season, Hamline struggled a bit getting out of the gate but worked out many of the kinks by the time MIAC play started. Recently, they swept perennial power St. Thomas for the first time in program history. Hamline stands 8-2 at the midpoint of conference play and is in sole possession of second place, one game behind league-leading Saint Benedict. The Pipers are 13-9 overall. "It's a little early to say if we are on track or not to make the playoffs, because every game we play in this conference is a battle," stated Couillard. "We just know we have to come into each game with high energy and intensity and never underestimate any opponent."

With Rubbelke graduating, Couillard moved back to her natural shortstop position. She is a leading reason behind HU's strong start. She is among the team leaders in hits, run, stolen bases, batting average and on-base percent.

For her career, Couillard has amassed 186 hits, vaulting into second place on Hamline's all-time hits list. She needs 31 more hits to move into the top spot.

Couillard has worked in Hamline's Sports Information Office for four years, helping with football, basketball and volleyball stats keeping as well as basic office work and website management. She is interning in the SID office this year and "has been my right hand in the SID office from the first day she walked on campus" according to SID Dave Wright. 

For four years, Couillard has been one of the softball team representatives on the Hamline Student Athletic Advisory Committee and is serving her second term as president of the group. SAAC looks out for the well being of student-athletes on campus, promotes support of Hamline athletics among the student body and encourages attendance at home games and events. The group has been active in the annual Toys for Teens drive during the holidays, "My sophomore year, we started a Bean Bag Tourney on campus," she said. "It is now an annual event.

"We have a rivalry series with Augsburg's SAAC, called the Unified Hammer. It is modeled after the football team's Hammer rivalry game with Augsburg, complete with a traveling trophy. We compete in flag football, basketball and softball."

Couillard is in her second year as one of Hamline's reps to the MIAC SAAC. Like the rest of the MIAC, she and the Hamline chapter are actively working with the Special Olympics. "During D3 Week last week, we helped put on the MIAC Unified basketball tourney, which featured teams of Special Olympians and MIAC student-athletes." Hamline was one of eight MIAC institutions to sponsor a team in the tourney.

In the fall semester this year, Couillard worked as an intern at the Special Olympics office in downtown Minneapolis. "My tasks ranged from organizing spreadsheets to helping secure sponsors to helping organize and set up a variety of events," she explained.

Couillard was honored as a CoSIDA Academic All-District First Team member both her sophomore and junior years. She was further honored as Academic All-America Third Team as a sophomore and First Team last year. Couillard has been nominated again this year. Wright added that "I am nominating her for NCAA [Honda] Woman of the Year award, too."

She is a double major in Psychology and Public Health Science and sports a perfect 4.0 GPA. She is also a licensed Nursing Assistant, having received her license during her sophomore year at Hamline. Long term, she is considering going on to Nursing School and becoming an RN, but is currently looking for employment. "I've worked at a pre-school as a teacher's aide, working with kids age three to five," she said. "I am exploring something along those lines is a career option, as is nursing and a number of other options in the public health field."

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Buerkle planned to attend St. Bernard's for high school. He enrolled there for ninth grade and played on the ninth grade basketball and baseball teams. However, the school closed its doors at the end of that year and Buerkle transferred to Concordia Academy. After a semester there, he decided to transfer to Roseville High. He played basketball on the sophomore team for the Raiders but opted not to play after that in order to better focus on baseball.

After spending his sophomore season on the JV, Buerkle took over as the starting left fielder as a junior. He helped Roseville reach the Section championship game, where they fell to Hill-Murray. He had a stellar season his senior year, garnering All-Conference and All-State accolades. He was invited to play in the Lions All-Star Series as part of the East Metro team.

He had played VFW baseball in the summers before his sophomore and junior years and progressed to American Legion ball the summer before his senior year. It was during his first summer of Legion ball that he caught the eyes of Saint Mary's coach Nick Winecke. "I think [Winecke] was at 15, maybe 20 of my games between Legion ball that summer and my high school season," Buerkle recalled. "His attention early on definitely influenced my decision when the time came to choose a college."

Because he was a bit of a late bloomer, Buerkle was not the object of a lot of recruiting, as much of the recruiting groundwork is done before the student-athlete's senior year of high school. Still, when an athlete puts up the kind of numbers Buerkle did his senior year, college coaches are going to notice. A number of Division III schools took note of Buerkle's ability, including most of the MIAC schools. "I looked closely at Saint Mary's, Saint John's and Luther in Iowa," he said. "I wanted a school with good academics, and that would give me a chance to play baseball. I wanted to get a way some for school, and Winona's small-town feel appealed to me. [Coach Winecke's] early interest and attention also helped me decide to go to Saint Mary's."

Like his cousin, Buerkle had an immediate impact on the SMU program. He started 40 of the Cardinals' 41 games, and has not sat out a game since. As a freshman, he split playing time between right and left field, with some stints as the DH. He helped SMU to a 13-7 record in MIAC play and a tie for third place with Saint John's. SMU was the third seed in the MIAC Playoffs. They lost to Bethel 11-8 in the opening round but bounced back to defeat SJU 3-0 before falling to Bethel 7-4, closing the 2014 season 18-23.

Buerkle had an outstanding season, hitting .412 with 33 RBIs, 61 hits, a .568 slugging percent and scored 32 runs, leading the team in each category. He was named MIAC Rookie of the Year and the American Baseball Coaches Association (ABCA) and Rawlings named him to its All-Midwest Region Second Team.

In Buerkle's sophomore season, Saint Mary's slipped to 9-9 in MIAC play, narrowly missing the Playoffs. Overall, they were 24-12. Buerkle had a truly phenomenal season, nearly capturing the MIAC Triple Crown as he led the league in batting average (.493 in MIAC games) and RBIs (29) while placing fifth in home runs. He also led the league in hits, stolen bases and total bases and was an easy selection to the All-MIAC First Team. ABCA/Rawlings honored him as a First Team All-Region and Second Team All-American selection, while d3basebal.com named him First team All-Region and Third Team All-American.

Last fall, Buerkle was asked to move from the outfield to third base as SMU was without a third sacker. He put in long hours, taking grounders and learning the position, and by spring was a proficient third baseman. The move helped as Saint Mary's finish in a three-way tie for second with Hamline and Saint John's, just one game behind St. Thomas. By virtue of the tiebreakers, the Cards were the fourth seed in the MIAC Playoffs. SMU took out any frustrations they might have had by beating St. Thomas 7-0 in the opening round. They lost a tight 4-2 game to Saint John's but bounced back to beat Hamline 19-2 to advance to the championship game. With their pitching depleted, the Cards trouped on but fell 11-4 to Saint John's. They closed the season 27-15-1.

   
Ben Buerkle has been excellent in the outfield for SMU.
(Photo Courtesy of Saint Mary's Athletics) 

Buerkle's hitting didn't suffer from the position change. He posted a .386 batting average, a .614 slugging percent and bashed 59 hits while driving in 43 runs to pace SMU. He was a repeat selection as All-MIAC and Second Team All-Region by both d3baseball.com and Rawlings/ABCA.

This year, Buerkle is back in the outfield, roaming centerfield for SMU. They are off to a sluggish start, standing 11-14 overall and 1-3 in MIAC action.  Buerkle isn't worried by the slow start. "We have had a few hiccups in our first conference games," he said. "We have struggled a lot doing the little things right and it has came back to hurt us. Good news is that we still have a lot of games left to make up for it. Our program is based on the relationships that we have built with each other, and this will allow us to stick together through the tough times in the season. Because of this, we have always been a program that plays our best baseball at the end of the season when all the cards are on the table."

Buerkle has provided the Cardinals with some amazing firepower, including a Spring Break trip stats line for the ages. On their Florida trip, he ripped the cover off the ball day after day. He went 25-for-36 en route to a .694 batting average, while leading the team in runs (16), hits (25), doubles (5), triples (1), home runs (4), RBIs (11), total bases (44), slugging percentage (1.222), walks (7), stolen bases (4), and on-base percentage (.756). He was honored as MIAC Player of the Week and garnered a spot on the d3baseball.com Team of the Week. He was further honored by being selected the National Collegiate Baseball Writers' Association (NCBWA) Division III Hitter of the Week.

He has "cooled off" to a .482 batting average and has found his power stroke as well. He has belted six homers thus far in 2017, moving him into third in SMU's record book and his slugging percent is a mind-numbing .800.

Speaking of the SMU record book, the hitting portion can be renamed "Buerkle's Book". Heading into Wednesday's doubleheader at St. Thomas, he is SMU's all-time leader in virtually every offensive category:  batting average, doubles, triples, RBIs, on-base percent and base on balls. He is tied for the all-time lead in hits and total bases and needs to score three runs to move into first place in that statistic as well. By season's end, his slugging percent should be in the top three among all SMU batters.

"I am honored to hold a number of SMU records and to have received many awards during my career as a Cardinal," Buerkle said. "But these records represent more of what SMU baseball has accomplished rather than personal achievements. I've been lucky to be part of a terrific baseball program, and my teammates and coaches deserve all the credit for the success I've had. It has never been a goal of mine to break any of these records, but rather to make my teammates and myself the best we can be. I want to be able to look back on my career knowing that I did everything I could with my opportunity to play college baseball."

In addition, Buerkle was named Saint Mary's Outstanding Male Athlete his freshman and sophomore years, losing out to senior teammate Willie Doll last year.

In the summers between his college years, Buerkle has played amateur ball for the St. Paul Shamrocks. "We've been to the Class A state tournament two of my three summers," he said.

He was named Academic All-District First Team in his sophomore and junior years and was further honored as Academic All-American Third Team both years. He has been nominated again for this year.

Buerkle is an Accounting major with a 3.82 GPA and will graduate next month. "I'm currently doing an internship with Hawkins, Ash CPAs at their Winona office," he said. "I've been doing individual tax returns, working 20-30 hours a week. I'm really enjoying what I am doing."

After graduation, Buerkle hopes to continue paying baseball, whether he is drafted by a MLB franchise, sings as a free agent or plays for an independent like the St. Paul Saints.

If that doesn't work out, "most likely I will be staying in Winona to start my accounting career," he said.

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While many may find Buerkle and Couillard to be unique among their peers, these cousins are two of a kind. They share many of the attributes that have made each of them successful. In addition to their innate athleticism, they share a work ethic that motivates them to put in the extra hours of practice necessary to elevate their game. Their joint family values instilled in each a modesty that results in them being more concerned with their team's results than their personal statistics.

A perfect ending would have not one, but both cousins hoisting the walnut and bronze championship trophy skyward with their teammates next month. Two of a kind, indeed!

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