Pitzenberger's perseverance powers ND
Hidden amidst all the numbers and decimal points that make up a season's worth of statistics are a sequence of digits that tell a story all their own. Notre Dame senior Sadie Pitzenberger has come to the plate 77 times this season. She has yet to strike out. She has yet to walk. She has yet to be hit by a pitch.
When you've used up every ounce of patience waiting to play, you're going to swing the bat every chance you get.
Notre Dame coach Deanna Gumpf mused recently that she should have known her red-headed recruit was going to have a unique career when Pitzenberger arrived on campus as a freshman with a "Harry Potter slash" across her forehead. The wound was less the result of supernatural powers than the force of a gun scope recoiling against her forehead on a hunting trip back home in Texas, but it wouldn't be difficult to construct a compelling case for a curse of some sort accompanying her to South Bend, Ind.
A starter from the first game of her college career, Pitzenberger was hitting .343 when she tore the ACL in her right knee just 31 games into her freshman season. A year later, she was hitting .329 when she tore the ACL again after 23 games, injuries that also necessitated hip surgery as a result of her overcompensating for the weaker leg. Having finally made it through a regular season relatively unscathed as a junior, she was hitting .410 last season when she collided with shortstop Katie Fleury in the team's opening game in the Big East tournament and suffered broken bones in her face, an injury she was told might have cost her an eye had the damage occurred inches away. A week later, she was back on the field with a protective face mask for four games in an NCAA regional tournament.
But through all of those injuries, there was always the prospect of more softball to bring her back, the days, weeks and months of repetitive rehab required to reach that point notwithstanding. The blow that finally broke her spirit came this past February, a week before her senior season was to begin, when Pitzenberger tore the same right ACL for a third time. Her doctor in South Bend told her that, rehab or no rehab, she could not be cleared to play any longer. Her career was over.
Ask Pitzenberger how many of the best days of her life involve softball in some capacity and she wastes little time offering up an estimate of "nine" with complete confidence. It's what made sacrificing a sizable chunk of a social life at Tomball High School worth it, the afternoons and weekends spent sweating on the diamond, not to mention often traveling long hours for the opportunity, less the fulfillment of an obligation than the pursuit of an obsession.
Sure, softball didn't make her a better person, but as is the case for so many, it enabled the person she was to emerge.
To have all of that come crashing down in a matter of seconds in a doctor's office left her adrift.
"It's like an identity crisis," Pitzenberger said. "Because it's like softball is my life, and then it's gone forever and you're not ever going to be ready for that, I think. It was devastating. You don't really know what to do and no one really knows what to say to you, either."
When the season started for the Fighting Irish, Pitzenberger wasn't there. Not in the lineup. Not on the bench for road trips. Not on the periphery of practice. So often forced to be a spectator during her first three seasons, she couldn't deal with those surroundings this time around. Without much in the way of explanation to her teammates, she simply vanished from the scene.
"I couldn't; I wasn't ready yet," Pitzenberger said of being around the team. "I needed to heal, I needed to talk to people -- I don't know, I just needed more healing. It's way too hard to be on the field and watch it. But I was eventually going to come back once I figured [it] out. Playing or not, I would have been back to support the team."
One person who remained in the loop was Gumpf, the coach who had realized four years earlier that she didn't have to do much of a recruiting pitch once Pitzenberger started talking about a desire to be part of taking Notre Dame, a power in so many other sports, to its first Women's College World Series. So many surgeries later, Gumpf gave Pitzenberger all the slack she needed in those February weeks. The coach didn't insist the player be around the team or alternatively make some formal separation. She brought the hammer down only in insisting Pitzenberger was going to leave South Bend with a job and putting her to work in the school's student welfare and development office.
"I needed to keep her busy because we just took away the one thing that she loved," Gumpf said. "So I didn't care if she was around because in my mind, I needed to protect her. I don't know if that's right or wrong, but I know I needed to protect her, and I needed something good to come out of all this crap."
Gumpf also supported Pitzenberger's desire to get a second opinion from a doctor in Texas when the latter returned home over spring break in March. When that opinion came back to the effect that as long as she could manage the pain, Pitzenberger couldn't do any more damage to a knee that no longer has anything where the ligament should be, the door that had slammed shut opened again. In a matter of three or four days, Pitzenberger went from retired to revitalized.
Watching her step into the batter's box for the first time as a pinch hitter in a blowout win against Providence on April 2, Gumpf made eye contact with Pitzenberger's mother in the stands and couldn't keep the tears at bay. True to form, after fouling off two pitches, Pitzenberger beat out an infield single.
A catcher and middle infielder through much of her first two seasons with the Fighting Irish, she now spends most of her time in right field. Whenever Gumpf can, at least until the postseason arrives, the coach tries to save some wear and tear by pinch running for her (players are allowed one re-entry in college softball). But if she is playing on one knee and with bad hips and bad shoulders, she still shows regular flashes of the physical ability that powered her World Series aspirations. Notre Dame clinched the Big East regular-season championship with a weekend sweep at Connecticut. It's no coincidence that Pitzenberger hit .561 (32-57) while appearing in all 20 conference games, her average the best in the league by more than 80 points.
"A healthy Sadie could potentially be a top-10 player in the country," Gumpf said. "Honestly, I'd take her up to bat with anybody, any time, any day."
As the bulky knee brace that stretches the right leg of her pants attests, we'll never know whether Gumpf's ranking is accurate. But just as British sprinter Derek Redmond hobbling to the finish line on a torn hamstring is as indelible an Olympic image as Usain Bolt pulling away from the competition at full stride, perseverance can be as impressive an accomplishment in athletics.
"I've never had it before, and I'll never, hopefully, ever see it again," Gumpf said of Pitzenberger's trials. "She's the most unbelievable athlete, to do what she does and be in the pain that she's in. She's in so much pain and she never complains about it."
Pitzenberger said that nine of her 10 best days involved softball. The lone holdout came recently, when she accepted a job offer from Credit Suisse in New York for an IT analyst training program. It's an opportunity that came about, at least in part, because of a job fair in South Bend in February, a job fair she likely would have missed had she been with the team on one of its numerous early-season road trips to escape the frozen ground.
With a future waiting for her beyond softball and people all around her advising her to listen to her body's painful protestations, it would have made sense to turn the page.
But love rarely makes much sense, as she acknowledged while she unfastened the bulky knee brace she wears while playing and replaced it with a bag of ice after a doubleheader at Connecticut on a rainy afternoon in front of perhaps a hundred fans,
"Everyone thinks I'm crazy," Pitzenberger said. "It's OK. I love the game. I love the girls. I love playing."Graham Hays covers women's college softball for ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn.com. Follow him on Twitter: @grahamhays.