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Jeff Kolpack, Published March 01 2013

Bison senior Birkel readies for final game in front of home fans

Fargo - First came Shane. Then two years later, another boy,

T.J., was born. When twins Andy and Matt became the third and fourth boys in the family, it was clear that parents Nick and Cherie Birkel of Lincoln, Neb., were going to have their hands full with bats, balls and muddy shoes.

What wasn’t known yet is if Cherie gave up hope of having a girl.

“To be honest, I had a 4-year-old, a 2-year-old and the twins,” she said. “I didn’t want another one on top of the others.”

But the boys eventually got some company.

A girl named Katie.

“I was shocked,” Cherie said. “I was thrilled. But Katie never had a chance. I wanted skirts on her, but by the time she figured out the boys were in gym shorts, she was going to be in gym shorts, too.”

Yes, a girl, finally a girl, did not mean the end to family backyard sporting battles for the mother. It did not mean the end to muddy clothes. There were still plenty of sporting events to go to for the fifth child, a ride that is coming to a close after all these years.

Katie Birkel is a North Dakota State women’s basketball senior who will start in her last home game tonight against South Dakota State. It’s a journey that has taken the parents thousands and thousands of miles to watch their kids play. Cherie uses words like chaotic, wild and fun to describe it.

“When you’re in the middle of it, you felt it would never end,” she said. “And now it’s here.”

Shane and T.J. mostly played baseball, with Shane playing high school football. The twins were more about track, football and basketball.

Andy was a highly recruited football player who signed with the University of Nebraska. He later transferred to Northern Colorado.

“She really loves her brothers, and she looks up to them,” said teammate Dani DeGagne. “She talks about them when they were younger, how they played such a big role.”

But as athletic and successful as the boys were in their prime, none of them finished as a career top-10 leader in a Division I sport. Katie is ninth on the Bison all-time scoring list with 1,422 points and needs just 29 to pass Kim Brekke for No. 8.

She’s ninth in a program that produced five national championships and decorated Hall of Fame-type players since the early 1980s. Perhaps the best Birkel was saved for last.

“I would say she by far had the best athletic career of all the Birkels,” Andy said, “because of what she’s done at North Dakota State. If you look at her whole career with the consistency she’s shown whether it’s defense, scoring, assists or being a good leader. I’m just really proud of her.”

Andy can appreciate consistency, since he went through four head coaches in college. And like Katie, he can appreciate all the miles his parents put in.

He does have one bit of advice for them, however: Find a hobby, because for the last 20 years, their hobby has been following their kids’ athletics.

“It’s hard to describe because part of us can’t believe it’s all about to end,” Cherie said, “and part of us quite honestly is tired of driving. Fargo is a big, long trip. It’s bittersweet. It’s hard to believe she’s not 10 anymore.”

Nope, she’s a fifth-year college senior who overcame an ACL tear that sidelined her all of last season. Cherie said she wasn’t sure Katie was going to recover fully from it. A similar knee injury happened to Andy when he was at Northern Colorado, so the family had experience with it.

“I will tell you, she’s worked so hard and she’s been so committed to this,” Cherie said. “We’re just so proud of how committed she’s been the whole way.”

Andy, in a way, paved the way for Katie in more ways than rehabilitating a knee. Katie remembers all the recruiting attention he got as a high school player, all of the letters and visits from coaches.

“I was able to understand what it was all about,” Katie said.

These days, the family is spread across the country. T.J., who will be at the Bison Sports Arena tonight, lives in Washington, D.C. Shane lives in New Hampshire. Both Andy and Matt live in California.

As youngsters, they battled, Katie said. She said her brothers never let her get away with anything. If she wasn’t born with competitiveness, they certainly grounded it into her. Andy remembers not letting her play in backyard pickup football games because, “One, she was younger. And two, she was a girl,” he said.

They can all laugh about it now.

“It’s been awesome to have their support,” Katie said. “They’re always calling me and texting me. I couldn’t have any better brothers.”

Forum reporter Jeff Kolpack can be reached at (701) 241-5546. Kolpack’s NDSU media blog can be found at www.areavoices.com/bisonmedia