2015 Fordham Softball – Week 18 / A Fitting Ending

Tuesday, May 19, 2015 – NCAA Tournament / Harrisonburg, Virginia

My dad and me take in one final moment together at the field following our loss to N.C. State.

My dad and I take in one final moment together at the field following our loss to N.C. State.

Sometimes you end up in places you’re not supposed to be. Places that once seemed distant, even impossible to get to. Places that transcend your understanding of the possible.

For nearly four months, I’ve taken you to some of these places in my life, through my words and videos, during this roller coaster ride that has been my experience as an NCAA softball player this season. You’ve gotten a look at my on-field struggles and triumphs, team victories and defeats, and nearly everything in between. But, what you don’t know is the most important part of the story, the part of the story that almost no one knows. What you don’t know is why this game and the places it has taken me have meant so much in the real life and times of this NCAA softball player.

I thought about my innermost realities as my dad held me while I cried atop the bleachers at Veterans Memorial Park on the campus of James Madison University on Sunday afternoon. We were the last people left in the park following our elimination in the regional championship game to North Carolina State, via a walk-off home run in the bottom of the seventh inning. A devastating blow to our Cinderella run at the Harrisonburg regional, which saw us knock-out the host team and 12th-ranked James Madison Dukes just a few hours earlier.

While the loss was certainly painful, I cried for reasons more multifaceted and deep-seated than just the angst of defeat. I cried tears of sadness for the conclusion of my time in uniform, tears of relief for the end of what had been the most personally challenging three weeks of my playing career, and mostly, tears of joy for the miracle that softball had been in my and my dad’s life over the past 16 years. It was as if every emotion I had recently been feeling had risen to the surface and was being released from the depths of my being. It was, perhaps, the most cathartic moment I had ever experienced.

What most people don’t know is that my dad and I weren’t supposed to be sitting atop those bleachers on Sunday afternoon; not given the hand we were dealt nearly two decades ago. After a divorce from my mom and some ugly events that followed had complicated our lives when I was young, my dad became a single parent who was left to raise a young daughter all by himself. Needless to say, life during those days was often difficult, as there was even a time when we did not have a place to live.

But, even in our hardest times, the one thing we always had, besides each other and our faith in God, was softball. It became our escape from everything that was wrong, and our vehicle of hope through which everything could once again become right. And, right everything did eventually become in our lives, as my dad was able to selflessly and independently put the pieces of our lives back together and provide me with everything I could have ever needed or wanted throughout my childhood, both on and off the field.

And, for as bad as things once were for us, that’s how great they became through softball. Our means of escape had become our shared passion, and had carried us to places and heights that had previously seemed unimaginable. From our magical journey to the championship game of the Little League World Series in Portland, Oregon, to a first-ever state championship in high school, and the amazing feat of three-straight conference championships and trips to the NCAA tournament at Fordham, softball has given my dad and me more joy than we ever could have dreamed of 16-years ago, when the game was simply a source of therapy from our pain.

Aside from all of the victories and amazing moments we experienced between the white lines, our 16-year softball journey did not come without its fair-share of difficulties. Right up until the very end, together we experienced the agony of defeat, the frustration of slumps, and the struggle to make sense of the inexplicable things that happen in our sport. But, similar to our love for one another, our love for the game never wavered. It remained strong and unremitting, and even propelled us through some of our toughest tests and disappointments along the way.

So, as I cried like a baby in my dad’s arms on Sunday afternoon, I felt overcome by gratitude for all that we had experienced together, the places we had been, and the love that we had shared because of this glorious game.

And, while Sunday completed the final chapter of my life-changing softball story, its conclusion was reminiscent of its beginning; with only my dad and me alongside a ball field, just like it had been 16 years ago. No matter what the scoreboard read during those final moments of my softball career, for me, there could not have been a more perfect ending.

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2015 Fordham Softball – Week 15 / A Beautiful Day at Bahoshy

Monday, April 27, 2015 – George Washington University / Bronx, New York

My dad and I embrace during Saturday's senior day ceremony in the Bronx. (Courtesy of Tom Wasiczko)

My dad and I embrace during Saturday’s senior day ceremony in the Bronx. (Courtesy of Tom Wasiczko)

I don’t think it’ll truly feel real until it’s actually over. Until the very last out is recorded, wherever and whenever that may be, and I walk off the field for the final time. But, on Saturday, the end felt as real and impending as it ever has. 

Last year, after this very weekend, I wrote about the bittersweet nature of senior day and lamented about the loss of my friends and teammates to graduation. I mentioned the array of emotions I felt while watching Elise, Tina, Gabby, and Bri make the trek across Bahoshy Field with their parents on senior day, as I cried for the end of their softball careers and the approaching end of my own. I imagined my senior day as being an emotional roller coaster ride, resulting in tears and sadness, with more “bitter” than “sweet” feelings, as I attempted to hold on for dear life to the game that has been my constant for 16 years. 

On Saturday, however, senior day was nothing like what I had imagined it would be. Sure, a few tears were shed from my eyes while I held onto my dad’s arm and watched my friends and their parents get honored before us. But, I wasn’t a ball of emotions like I had been a year before and had expected to be when my name was finally called. Rather, I felt poised and at peace, as a genuine sense of happiness filled me on this day of celebration.

And what a beautiful day of celebration it was, as quality time was spent with friends, teammates, and our extended Fordham Softball family. The added bonus of the day was the dominance we Rams displayed on the field, as we walked away from senior day two wins richer, both by way of the 5-inning mercy-rule against George Washington University. 

The greatest source of my happiness on Saturday, however, was in sharing the entire experience with my dad, who has made every great thing in my life possible and has been by my side through each step of my 16-year softball and 22-year life journey. Together, we’ve defied the odds and made it through some incredible obstacles to get to Saturday’s celebration. Being able to share in that victory alone superseded anything great that happened on the field that day. 

While I felt happy, honored, and truly proud to be a Ram on Saturday, what I didn’t feel was sadness about the inevitable and approaching end of my softball career like I thought I would. Though part of me wishes I could don the maroon and white forever, another part of me knows that all good things must eventually come to an end. And when that day arrives in the upcoming weeks, the time will be right. Until then, I plan on making all of my remaining days in a Fordham uniform beautiful ones.

2015 Fordham Softball – Week 14 / Surviving the Ups and Downs of a Crazy Game

Friday, April 17, 2015 – St. Bonaventure University / Olean, New York

(Courtesy of Tom  Wasiczko)

(Courtesy of Tom Wasiczko)

We play a crazy game. One in which a team can get clobbered one game and then walk off the field as winners two hours later against the same team in stunning, come-from-behind fashion. One that allows a streaking squad with a losing record to sneak into a conference tournament as the dark horse and have an opportunity to advance to the NCAA’s big dance. One that sees a player struggling at the plate for a few games, only to wake up one day and inexplicably catch fire. Ours is the craziest of games, one could argue.   

And on this team, in this conference, at this juncture in the season, the craziness is quite often on full display. More than in each of my previous three seasons, the league is wide open this year and the conference championship is pretty much any team’s for the taking. Besides maybe one or two teams at the bottom of the standings, there isn’t much of a disparity between the squads in the Atlantic 10 this season, making things equally as exciting and unknown for the upcoming conference tournament in a few weeks. 

In the midst of all the unpredictability, however, it’s often hard for teams and players to get on a roll, and harder yet, to stay rolling. The inevitable ups and downs of a long season can be disheartening, and oftentimes derailing, but they’re all just part of the process, and ultimately, what you sign up for as a college softball player. 

A midweek conference tilt against St. Bonaventure this past week produced lopsided results similar to the ones I alluded to above. Following a seven-hour bus ride up to Olean, New York, we Rams eased through game one of Wednesday’s doubleheader and won 10-2, while extending our winning streak to five games. Game two, however, summed up the baffling nature of our sport quite perfectly. As the heavily favored team in the contest, we sat on a 1-0 lead for most of the quickly moving game, despite outhitting our opponents and driving multiple balls to the warning track through six innings. The home half of the sixth saw the wheels start to fall off for us, however, and thus, that hot, foreshadowing feeling of impending disaster on the softball diamond began to set in. Sure enough, the upstart Bonnies rode the momentum all the way to a walk-off victory in the bottom of the seventh inning, once again showing that the favored team doesn’t always win in softball. 

The loss to St. Bonaventure was certainly frustrating, as all losses are, but I think we quickly came to terms with it and realized that it is just the nature of the unpredictable game we play. It’s important to just keep on keeping on, especially at this critical point in the season when each game matters for tournament seeding.

In order to survive the ups and downs of college softball, and not become derailed by them, sometimes you just have to toss things up to the unpredictable nature of our sport. In this game, you have to roll with the punches and know that it is only a matter of time before the craziness swings back into your favor again. And ultimately, it is in trusting that your team will bounce back and be the one walking off the field as the inexplicable winner that will get you through the thicket. 

35 Years Later, Memories Still Fresh for Women’s College Hoops Legend

Former women’s college basketball star Anne Gregory-O’Connell remembers with crystal clear clarity what it was like to be a female college athlete in the late-1970s.

Anne Gregory-O'Connell. (Courtesy of Fordham University)

Anne Gregory-O’Connell. (Courtesy of Fordham University)

“We actually got the men’s hand-me-down warm-ups and we thought we were totally cool because of it,” Gregory-O’Connell recalled. “My coach (Kathy Mosolino) really had to fight to even get us gym time to practice. That was just the way it was.”

The 1980 graduate of Fordham University was women’s college basketball’s all-time leading rebounder from her senior year in 1980 until 2009, when Oklahoma’s Courtney Paris surpassed her career total of 1,999.

Gregory-O’Connell posted remarkable career numbers along with her 1,999 rebounds (2,548 points, 200 blocks, .568 field goal percentage). The 6-foot-1 forward’s electrifying play not only helped her team’s cause on the court, but also forced people to pay attention to women’s college basketball during a time when women’s sports were anything but popular.

When the former hoops star thinks back to her time in the maroon and white, however, she does not dwell on the gender inequities she and her teammates endured, but rather the pride that comes from having laid the groundwork for what now exists for female athletes at Fordham.

“Even though we had to fight for everything we got, I’m proud of having been a part of that pioneer era for women’s sports,” Gregory-O’Connell, a member of Fordham’s second-ever women’s recruiting class to get athletic scholarships, said. “And I’m especially proud to see Fordham Women’s Basketball under Stephanie Gaitley now competing regularly on a national level and getting recognized for their success.”

After having advanced to the last two Atlantic 10 Conference championship games and winning the title last season, Fordham Women’s Basketball has risen out of obscurity and into the national conversation. The Rams have experienced back-to-back 25-win seasons under head coach Stephanie Gaitley, and are poised to contend for another championship this year. The winning tradition that Gaitley’s squad has reestablished in the Bronx reminds Gregory-O’Connell of the last time Fordham women’s hoops was an annual contender: her own playing days.

Gregory-O’Connell’s playing career at Fordham exhibited the most successful four-year run in program history, with the team recording 91 total wins from 1976-80, and winning the 1978 and 1979 Eastern Regional Championships. While becoming Fordham’s all-time leading rebounder, scorer, and blocker during this time, Gregory-O’Connell was not alone in her record-setting success. Her teammate, Mary Hayes, set the assists record, while Kathy Mosolino became Fordham’s winningest women’s basketball coach in school history. All of these records still stand today.

While each season that Gregory-O’Connell donned the Block F was memorable, the board-crashing legend considers her junior season, which saw her team advance to the equivalent of today’s Elite 8, as her favorite.

“We hosted the Regional Tournament at Fordham that year and we beat Long Beach State, who we were not supposed to beat at all,” stated Gregory-O’Connell, now a guidance counselor at Holy Trinity High School in Hicksville, New York. “Then we got to play against Tennessee and Pat Summit and that was just a huge thrill. We gave them a game.”

Gregory-O'Connell after her No. 55 was retired in 2009. (Courtesy of Fordham University)

Gregory-O’Connell after her No. 55 was retired in 2009. (Courtesy of Fordham University)

The Fordham Rams finished their magical 1978-79 season with a 27-7 record and the program’s only-ever Top 25 ranking, with a spot at #19. The ’78-’79 squad still holds six team records to this day, including the program’s highest single-season win total. These indelible marks prove that Gregory-O’Connell and her teammates are still the pride of the Rose Hill Gymnasium, even after nearly four decades.

“We had a really good team, a tremendous coach, excellent chemistry, and a really, really good time,” Gregory-O’Connell recollected.

Gregory-O’Connell became the first female athlete inducted into the Fordham Athletics Hall of Fame in 1986. Her No. 55 jersey is also one of just two permanently on display in the Rose Hill Gymnasium, as it was retired in 2009 alongside Fordham Basketball great Ed Conlin.

While the evidence of Gregory-O’Connell’s tremendous college basketball career now rests primarily in the record books and the rafters of Fordham’s primordial gym, the biggest proof of her supreme experiences on the hardwood is evident in her life.

“The discipline, hard work, and confidence I gained at Fordham followed me after graduation,” Gregory-O’Connell said. “And the friendships I made at that period in my life have been unbelievable and long-lasting since college. We all still get together and reminisce about the old times. It was an experience I truly wouldn’t trade for anything.”

The Roller Coaster Ride of a Lifetime

Monday, May 19, 2014 – NCAA Tournament / Tallahassee, FL

Our last team picture as the 2014 Fordham Rams.

The 2014 Fordham Rams, for the last time.

The song seemed appropriate. OneRepublic’s “Good Life” filled the speakers at Florida State’s JoAnne Graf Field as we convened for one last team picture. We had just ended our season with a heartbreaking 5-4 loss to South Carolina in the NCAA Regionals. The loss was a bitter pill to swallow, but OneRepublic’s lyrics eased the immediate pain and provided an amazingly fitting ending to our final moments in uniform together:

Hopelessly, I feel like there might be something that I’ll miss.

Hopelessly, I feel like the window closes oh so quick.

Hopelessly, I’m taking a mental picture of you now.

‘Cause hopelessly, the hope is we have so much to feel good about.”

That last line was particularly pertinent for the moment. After capturing our second straight Atlantic 10 Championship and finishing with a 36-20 record, as well as all of the other individual and collective accomplishments we garnered throughout the season, we do, in fact, have so much to feel good about.

Michele Smith and me chatting after our first game at Regionals against Florida State.

ESPN commentator and Olympic gold medalist Michele Smith chatting with me after our first game at Regionals against Florida State.

For fifteen weeks, I have documented many of the highs and lows of the 2014 Fordham Softball season. During this fifteen-week process, I have learned more about myself, my teammates, and the nature of this amazing sport than in any other season in my fifteen-year softball career. In these fifteen short weeks, our myriad successes and failures comprised the story that will be forever etched in both the history of our program and the history of our lives.

As a particularly sentimental person, now is the time when my nostalgia is at an all-time high. Just as I will miss our four seniors (Tina, Bri, Gabby, and Elise) and the tremendous journey we experienced together, I will also miss writing this blog. While capturing the so-called “chapters in-between” (the moments that shape the journey, but often go unnoticed and unappreciated), this blog has provided me with an outlet to experience clarity and understanding during some of the toughest times this season, as well as a way to truly appreciate the moments of greatness and joy.

After getting eliminated on Saturday night by South Carolina, I talked with Sydney, my roommate during Regionals, in our hotel room before falling asleep. We reminisced and recapped various moments from our season and compared it to a roller coaster ride; not in the traditional sense, however, in which roller coasters are often used as metaphors with negative connotations.

My Dad and me at Regionals. He made the trip down to Tallahassee to support his Rams.

My Dad and me at Regionals. He made the trip down to Tallahassee to support his Rams.

We determined that our 2014 softball season was the roller coaster ride of a lifetime. Sure, there were moments of anxiety and doubt while we were ascending up the tracks, along with moments of fear after the initial drop-off, during which we felt like we might fall out or become sick. But, after we got some momentum and stopped white-knuckling the safety bar in front of us, the rest of the ride was thrilling, and even joyous. Ultimately, this roller coaster ride left the people who had experienced it wanting to hop back on line and ride it again.

For thrill-seekers, like me, there is nothing more enjoyable than a good roller coaster ride.

As I say goodbye to yet another season in my softball career and begin preparing for my final go-around next year, I find solace in the words of Ernest Hemingway:

“It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.”

And what a journey it was. Thanks to everyone who came along for the ride!