Notebook: Ryan Iamurri fights back

Courtesy of University of Alabama

Alabama senior Ryan Iamurri, who tore her ACL and PCL and sprained her MCL on March 12, returned to the lineup as a pinch hitter this past Wednesday against South Alabama.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- During an unofficial visit to Alabama when she was still a sophomore in high school, Ryan Iamurri told a room full of Crimson Tide softball players and coaches that she would take any role, up to and including that of water girl, if it meant a chance to be a part of the program.

She wasn't entirely serious about the water girl part. She did, after all, hit well enough to earn not just all-state but All-American honors as a prep player. But she wasn't going to be picky about a role if Alabama wanted to give her a uniform.

To her surprise, the Tide eventually did make that offer. Now a college senior, she is going to extremes to live up to her end of the bargain.

Three weeks to the day after Iamurri tore the anterior cruciate and posterior cruciate ligaments in her left knee and sprained the medial collateral ligament in the same knee, one of the best pinch hitters in softball stepped to the plate this past Wednesday in a game between Alabama and South Alabama, two teams with Women's College World Series aspirations. Her teammates, led by the player whose at-bat she claimed, came out of the dugout to stand and applaud as she neared the plate. That she ultimately grounded out hardly mattered.

"Oh my gosh, she has been working so hard to get through everything," pitcher Sydney Littlejohn said. "She's doing everything she can for this team, even if she's not playing out in the field. She's helping us out in practice, helping us out in whatever way she can. She's such a hard worker on and off the field. It made us all very happy to see her go out there. ...

"She's a great inspiration for all of us and a great motivation."

A day later, as the ping of a coach's bat echoed around the empty seats in Alabama's stadium, Iamurri worked off to the side and climbed the 40 steps that led from the playing field to the concourse at the top of the grandstand. As the outfielders chased balls onto the warning track, Iamurri shortened the journey to 27 steps by taking them two at a time with her left leg encased in a brace from calf to thigh.

Her teammates were preparing for their roles. So was she.

On March 12, as the Tide practiced before a weekend series at Mississippi, Iamurri, playing second base, and right fielder Andrea Hawkins chased after a fly ball. It was a windy day and the ball drifted over toward the foul line and fell in space that neither player was certain she could reach. Neither called the other off in time. They collided.

"She's like hitting a linebacker," said Iamurri, who then added with a grin, "She ended up catching it, though."

No stranger to knee injuries, having torn the ACL in her right knee playing soccer in high school, Iamurri knew full well what the pain meant and wasn't surprised when athletic trainer Erin Weaver and associate head coach Alyson Habetz approached her at dinner the following night with the results of that morning's MRI. All she wanted to know was if she could play through the injury.

She researched others who'd played in similar circumstances to convince her skeptical dad, a softball coach himself.

She showed up every morning for up to an hour and a half of physical therapy with Weaver, in addition to afternoon practice, and pestered to be allowed one more set or one more repetition.

And when doctors told her she might, at the optimistic end of the spectrum, make it back for this past weekend's Arkansas series, she returned against South Alabama three days ahead of even that accelerated schedule.

All of this not to reclaim a starting job, but for the chance to perhaps hit once a game and move a runner over. In nearly four full seasons, she's amassed 153 at-bats. But in her plate appearances, she's hitting .373 with 11 sacrifices, 21 walks and just 18 strikeouts.

At 4-foot-10, Iamurri doesn't fit the physical profile of a Division I player, let alone one at a program that annually contends for national championships. Plenty of people wrote her off because of it. Once on a recruiting visit with childhood friend Jackie Traina, now an All-American at Alabama, she listened to the coach make small talk with Traina and ask about the daughter of the coach Traina played for in Florida. Iamurri was the daughter of that coach. She was standing right there the whole time.

"Let's just say there wasn't a connection," Iamurri said of the encounter.

It's not as if she lacked a resume. She hit .500 one year in high school and had an offer for a full scholarship at Jacksonville State, a mid-major program but one with a history of postseason appearances, as well as similar interest from programs like Purdue. She was about a week away from taking the offer from Jacksonville State when Alabama called. The Tide couldn't offer her financial assistance beyond books, but they wanted her to be part of the program. Not necessarily as a starter but also as more than the water girl.

"I love pinch hitting," Iamurri said. "I love it, and I think it's really fun and I love the butterflies in your tummy. I love when you get the job done and you get all the high-fives. If that's where they need me, that's where they need me. ...

"I can't hit the ball out of the park, but I can put it wherever you want it. Put a rock out on the field and I'll try to hit it."

All the work she puts in now to get on the field is to forestall the inevitable. Her softball career will end in a matter of weeks regardless of what ligaments she does or doesn't have. But in her mind, she has a role to play.

"They tell you it goes fast, but you don't realize it until you're a senior and everything is counted in weeks," Iamurri said. "There's what, six weeks left? That's crazy. But to take that away from me is even worse.

"I want to give every last bit of what I have to this sport, to this team, because they would do it for me."

Players of the week

Jamie Allred, McNeese State: The sophomore who spent much of the first month of the season pitching against postseason-caliber teams from major conferences -- and holding her own -- is proving too much to handle for mid-major opponents. Allred picked up three wins and a save in four appearances this past week against Louisiana Tech and Central Arkansas. She allowed just one earned run in 23 innings and struck out 25 batters against just four walks. For the season, she's 15-5 with a 1.71 ERA. She presumably gets a shot at LSU when the teams play Wednesday.

Samantha Galarza, Cal State Fullerton: It's back-to-back appearances for Fullerton after Missy Taukeiaho earned mention last time out. Galarza had six hits in 10 at-bats during a series at Hawaii, but one of those hits was especially helpful in sending the Titans home with two wins and the tiebreaker over the Rainbow Wahine as both sit in second place in the Big West. With the series opener tied 3-3 in the ninth inning, Galarza came up with a one-out double and then scored on a single from Lauren Mario and a wild pitch. A lot of bats contributed to a 12-3 win in the finale, but she chipped in with two hits and an RBI.

Jennifer Gilbert, Ball State: The NCAA's active home run leader added one to her total in a midweek game against Notre Dame (the list of ranked teams against which she has homered this season also includes Auburn and Arizona). But it wasn't her power that made it such a successful week. Gilbert came to the plate eight times in a weekend doubleheader against Toledo and the Rockets are still trying to figure out how to get her out. Gilbert went 4-for-4 in the first game, including an RBI triple, and then singled, was hit by a pitch and was intentionally walked twice in the second game.

Maddie O'Brien, Florida State: Take your pick of Florida State stars in this space. Or, if you're one of the team's opponents, pick your poison. Both O'Brien and ace Lacey Waldrop came up huge for the Seminoles in a week in which they beat North Carolina on Monday to wrap up a three-game sweep, beat Florida in Gainesville on Wednesday and then swept three games from Maryland over the weekend. O'Brien gets the nod here for five extra-base hits, including three home runs, and timely hitting. One of the home runs came against the Gators and her fielder's choice in the eighth brought home the eventual winning run (Florida State's shortstop, O'Brien was pretty special in the field in that game, too).

Kelsey Stevens, Oklahoma: Anyone else have a game they need Stevens to pitch? She doesn't seem to mind the work. Oklahoma's ace was pretty much its lone card this past week. The sophomore started all four games the Sooners played and picked up four wins in the process. Shelby Pendley made one appearance and earned her second save, but Stevens worked 21 innings across one game against Oklahoma State and three against Kansas. She allowed just 12 hits and struck out 21 batters. That runs her record to 6-0 with a 0.51 ERA in Big 12 play entering this week's series at Baylor.

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