March 19, 2024 // Diocese

Sisters at Saint Joseph Committed to College Powerhouse

Besides Red Bull, hype music, and talking down nerves, sisters Riley and Berkley Zache have another essential pregame preparation.

“Riley and I, we’ll usually pray together,” Berkley explained.

“We just don’t feel ready to go if we don’t do our prayer,” Riley added.

Riley, a senior at Saint Joseph High School in South Bend, and Berkley, a junior, have both committed to continue their softball careers post-graduation at the University of Oklahoma, the nation’s premier collegiate powerhouse, which has won three consecutive – and five of the past seven – Women’s College World Series titles.

Photos courtesy of Leslie Zache
Sisters Riley, left, and Berkley Zache pray together before a softball game. The sisters – Riley, a senior, and Berkley, a junior – attend Saint Joseph High School in South Bend and are both committed to play softball at the University of Oklahoma after their high school careers.

Riley had previously given her verbal commitment to the University of Missouri, but when the offer came to play with her sister at Oklahoma, she took it. They joke that they suffer from “separation anxiety” when apart.

“My dream was always to play with her,” Berkley said of her sister. “We’re competitive in the sense of [playing against] other teams; we’re not competitive in the sense of who’s a better athlete.”

“It’s never going to be home if we’re not together, so we had to find the home for the both of us,” Riley said.

Riley and Berkley told Today’s Catholic that they had always planned on playing a sport at the collegiate level, but they weren’t always set on softball as their sport of choice. The sisters have participated in swimming, tennis, and gymnastics. Softball and volleyball were the sports they played the most growing up, but it wasn’t until the COVID-19 pandemic that they narrowed their focus to just these two. Now, with the three-time defending national champion Sooners waiting, softball has become their top priority.

Saint Joseph High School junior Berkley Zache has been named a high school All-American by MaxPreps and is ranked as the third best player in the nation in the Class of 2025.

Sports run through the Zache family bloodlines. Their mother, Leslie, has coached softball at Saint Joseph for a decade. Their aunts on their father’s side also played softball competitively and now coach at Indiana University South Bend. Their father, Bobby Zache, was a U.S. decathlete in his day, which gave him a solid background to help guide his daughters’ athletic training.

“I saw that the health and wellness industry was really suffering in the U.S.,” Bobby said. “The emphasis was on competition first and professionalizing youth athletics. I just did not agree with that. I’m a big advocate of developing the athlete first.”

For instance, Riley and Berkley remember their father demonstrating exercises on a human skeleton model – showing how the body moves and explaining what happens to the muscles during different movements, rather than just telling the sisters to do the exercises with no context.

Bobby’s philosophy of training also shows in his daughters’ schedules, which are full but include time for spiritual and academic pursuits as well as physical. Leslie said sometimes the family has been seen as “contrarian and difficult” for their holistic approach. As Bobby said, “We were like, ‘They’re not playing 30 games this week.’ They have to focus on their homework, they have to focus on their spirituality.”

Senior softball player Riley Zache was named a First-Team All-State selection last year and is ranked as one of the top 50 players in the nation for the Class of 2024 according to the Extra Elite 100.

Academics are part of the reason the family chose Saint Joseph High School. Riley said she knows she won’t be able to support herself playing professional softball. She wants to build a sustainable career that focuses on helping others. Both Riley and Berkley are interested in studying orthopedics at Oklahoma.

The sisters also do what they can to fit in rigorous softball practice and homework in ways that work for them. Berkley, for instance, usually works out early in the morning before school. Night owl Riley, on the other hand, works out after school and works later into the evening.

“People in a way romanticize this lifestyle, and it’s like, it’s a very hard lifestyle,” Riley said. “But in the end, you’re living out your dream, and honestly, I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

“Seeing all the work you put in, and coming out on the flip side knowing that it was all worth it is the most rewarding part of the game,” Berkley added.

The focus on the whole person was part of what attracted the Zache family to the University of Oklahoma. For example, the sisters said that when they get to campus, they’ll be required to take a two-week etiquette class.

“[Oklahoma Coach Patty] Gasso says, ‘We’re not training you to become good ballplayers, we’re training you to become successful women,’” Riley said.

Another major factor in the family’s decision to choose OU was what Bobby called the team’s “spiritual family feeling.” Berkley remembered the team praying for her to have a good visit, and Riley was struck by the self-deflecting attitude of the players. She especially recalled an interview with some of the women on the team.

“Whenever they hit a home run or do something good, they do [a gesture called] ‘eyes up,’ and they give glory to God for everything that they do, because they know they wouldn’t be able to do anything without God,” Riley said. “That really kind of stuck with me, because some people do it for show, and you can tell they’re deeply invested in their faith and everything, and their faith is more important to them than the game is. … It’s going to make the whole experience more worthwhile, doing it for a greater purpose.”

Last June, after the Sooners won their most recent national title, members of the team went viral for preaching about the importance of God during their postgame news conference. A reporter asked the players on the panel how they managed to be so joyful “when anxiety seems like a thing that could very easily set in.” Then-senior shortstop Grace Lyons said, profoundly, “Well, the only way that you can have a joy that doesn’t fade away is from the Lord. Any other type of joy is actually happiness that comes from circumstances and outcomes. I think Coach has said this before, but joy from the Lord is really the only thing that can keep you motivated.”

This is the team spirit that attracted the Zache sisters – a similar camaraderie to what they’ve experienced at Saint Joseph, as both Riley and Berkley said that it’s the friendships with their teammates – and each other – that make the game special.

The sisters said they’re often asked the question, “Who’s better?”

“We’re never going to openly admit who we think is better,” Riley said. “I’m going to say it’s her, because I see all the things she does.”

Berkley responded, “And I’m going to say it’s her, because I couldn’t be where I am without you, buddy.”

Riley, however, said the answer is obvious: “We’re the best when we’re together.”

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