SOUTH BEND — Being a walk-on in Division I collegiate sports is nothing new in the Baer family, but Kristin Baer decided over the holiday break to walk that a step further.
Baer, who rose from barely used walk-on to key scholarship performer during her career in the Notre Dame volleyball program, added the Irish women’s basketball program to her repertoire last month.
She’ll probably never star in her new sport — and it might surprise you just how much the word “new” really applies — yet she’s once again become more than just a token presence, already.
“She’s been fantastic,” Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said Wednesday afternoon before practice of the 6-foot-2 grad student.
“She’s made a great impact on us just in the locker room,” McGraw said. “She has a maturity from walking on in volleyball, and from being on a team that didn’t have a good record her first year, so she knows what that’s like, and she has really good things to say when we go around and talk about the games. The girls love her. I mean, she’s just been this really great, positive person.”
Even if she wasn’t all those other things, she’s also been one heck of a good-luck charm. ND’s season-best three-game winning streak exactly coincides with Baer’s first three games in uniform.
“I don’t know about that,” Baer said with a laugh Wednesday when the notion was kiddingly proposed that she’s made the difference.
Baer’s journey is an unusual one, not necessarily by being at Notre Dame —a great uncle, a cousin and two brothers are all ND grads — but certainly within the realm of sports.
In volleyball, the native of San Jose, Calif., never appeared in a match as a true freshman in 2015 for a 7-25 team.
Then she appeared in just one the following year as a redshirt freshman.
Then she made five starts in 2017.
Then she hammered 32 kills over eight appearances for a 16-12 team in current coach Mike Johnson’s rookie year in 2018.
Then she was awarded a scholarship before last fall and was even named captain. Starting every match at middle blocker, she led a 19-10 Irish squad in blocks with 119, and in kill percentage at 30.4, to go with 177 kills.
Now the three-time Atlantic Coast Conference academic honor roll selection is winding down her academic career with sights set on a business career, “maybe in sports retail and marketing or analytics.”
“Yes, very much so,” Baer said of whether her plate is full.
Why clear space for Irish women’s basketball then?
“I think it’s just so much gratitude for the athletics program at Notre Dame and everything I’ve been given through the volleyball program,” Baer said. “Coach (McGraw) called me over Christmas break and asked if I’d come out and help, and I just figured anything I could contribute in terms of leadership experience from volleyball, or just hustle, good habits, doing things the right way, that I could bring that to the table here, and then just have fun representing Notre Dame.”
McGraw initially contacted Johnson well before the break given her team’s lack of numbers that are sometimes an issue in practices, let alone games, to see if there were any volleyball seniors or grad students with a basketball background interested in coming out with volleyball season recently wrapped up.
That first time, she recalls, she was told there was nobody who was interested in making the admittedly considerable commitment.
That didn’t stop McGraw from asking Johnson a second time right around the holiday break.
It turns out there was Kristin Baer, who might be interested, but as far as a basketball background, well ...
“I did not play basketball in high school,” Baer confessed with a blushing grin Wednesday. “I played from second to eighth grade, and my dad was always my coach, but I switched to volleyball in seventh grade.”
Had she at least played some rec or pick-up ball since that switch?
“Not at all,” Baer said, blushing again.
“I did find out,” she said of her first ND practice on Jan. 12 upon returning to campus, “that layups are kind of like riding a bike. You don’t forget.
“But any other field goal ... ” she added with a side-to-side grimace of how much those skills had abandoned her.
Apparently, they came back.
Just 32 seconds after the player with no high school experience got into her first college game, Sunday’s 74-52 win over Pittsburgh, Baer banked in a slightly awkward jumper from about 12 feet for her team’s final points, setting off delirium along the Irish bench.
“That was probably a lot farther out than I should’ve shot from,” Baer said, “but honestly, I knew my teammates would go crazy if I made it, and they did, so that was super fun. I kind of figured I had nothing to lose, because the team had worked so hard to get us a good lead.”
Baer even went on to attempt a second shot while playing the final 95 seconds, and though she missed that one, she now easily leads the Irish in points per minute and in rebounds per minute — she grabbed two — to go with ranking second in field goal percentage.
Sure, those stats might be flukish, but Baer’s value is not.
“She brings a lot of perspective to us and what it means to play for Notre Dame and what the standards are,” freshman Sam Brunelle said Wednesday. “It’s really great to have her.”
Brunelle is among those who have worked with Baer most on her shot. “She’s a very quick learner and a very willing learner,” Brunelle said. “It’s fun (that) she’s asking me to teach her how to shoot, or fix her shot a little bit.”
If it was somebody other than an individual with Baer’s disposition and sincere desire to help, such sessions might be more of a chore.
“It is tough this time of year, because we’re so focused on the next game and scouting reports and don’t have time to go over the fundamentals, or even some of the offense,” McGraw said, “but she’s constantly asking the coaches, ‘Hey can you work with me on boxing out?’ (or) ‘Can we do a little five-on-oh so I can get comfortable with the offense?’ She really wants to learn and wants to contribute.”
Baer, who also has a cousin who played soccer at Stanford, is the third member of her extended family to play Division I college basketball as a walk-on.
She joins cousins Nicholas Baer, who just completed his Iowa career last winter by averaging 6.7 points, 4.6 rebounds and 1.0 blocks while appearing in every game for the Hawkeyes, and Michael Baer, who is an Iowa junior.
Nicholas, who was awarded a scholarship prior to his third season with the Hawkeyes, is now a member of the Toronto Raptors’ NBA G-League team.
“I was texting with Nicholas earlier today about what we’re up to,” Kristin Baer said. “It’s awesome, because we have similar stories.”
Other than the fact that Kristin is now the first athlete in the family to compete at the Division I level in two sports.
While she wasted little time in scoring her initial basketball points, Baer admits there’s another statistic she’d like to notch. She is, after all, a blocker in volleyball.
“Oh my gosh, yes,” Baer said of whether she wants to block a shot. “That’s one thing I was joking with Coach McGraw about when she first called. I said ‘I can jump and I can block, so maybe I can block a shot and tip off a game for you.’”