College softball: Bender headlines Bulldogs recruiting class

Cloquet's Kiana Bender swings the bat for a gamy-tying home run in the sixth inning of a May 2019 game at Braun Park. (Dave Harwig/Pine Journal)
Cloquet's Kiana Bender hits a game-tying home run in the sixth inning Friday, May 3, at Braun Park. (Dave Harwig/Pine Journal)

Senior multisport standout Kiana Bender of Cloquet headlines the Minnesota Duluth softball team’s recruiting class as Bulldogs coach Jen Walter has 10 athletes committed to playing beginning in 2020-21.

Bender, a shortstop, hit .366 last spring with three home runs and a .573 slugging percentage as the Lumberjacks captured third at the Class AAA state tournament.

Bender followed that up by being named the News Tribune’s All-Area Player of the Year in soccer after netting 20 goals and assisting on 15 others as Cloquet-Carlton made the Class A state tournament. She then earned All-Area first-team honors in hockey after notching 34 goals and 27 assists as Cloquet-Esko-Carlton went 27-4 and finished as Class A runner-up.

Bender’s older brother, Koby, is a junior winger with the UMD men’s hockey team.

Bender is joined in the recruiting class by another multisport standout, hockey linemate Dea DeLeon of Esko. DeLeon, a center fielder, has started the past three seasons and earned All-Area first-team honors after hitting .526. As a libero in volleyball she earned Polar League All-Star honors.


The rest of the UMD recruiting class consists of utility player Kat Burkhardt (New Berlin, Wis.), pitcher Lauren Dixon (Pulaski, Wis.), infielder Julia Gronholz (Chanhassen, Minn.), outfielder Paige Meyer (Hudson, Wis.), catcher Kate Mohr (Farmington, Minn.), shortstop Kaytlynne Shulte (Osseo, Minn.), catcher Kelly Swank (Durant, Fla.) and pitcher Corrie Weise (Becker, Minn).

Jon Nowacki joined the News Tribune in August 1998 as a sports reporter. He grew up in Stephen, Minnesota, in the northwest corner of the state, where he was actively involved in school and sports and was a proud member of the Tigers’ 1992 state championship nine-man football team.

After graduating in 1993, Nowacki majored in print journalism at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, serving as editor of the college paper, “The Aquin,” and graduating with honors in December 1997. He worked with the Associated Press during the “tobacco trial” of 1998, leading to the industry’s historic $206 billion settlement, before moving to Duluth.

Nowacki started as a prep reporter for the News Tribune before moving onto the college ranks, with an emphasis on Minnesota Duluth football, including coverage of the Bulldogs’ NCAA Division II championships in 2008 and 2010.

Nowacki continues to focus on college sports while filling in as a backup on preps, especially at tournament time. He covers the Duluth Huskies baseball team and auto racing in the summer. When time allows, he also writes an offbeat and lighthearted food column entitled “The Taco Stand,” a reference to the “Taco Jon” nickname given to him by his older brother when he was a teenager that stuck with him through college. He has a teenage daughter, Emma.

Nowacki can be reached at or (218) 380-7027. Follow him on Twitter @TacoJon1.
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