VCSU's 6 seniors prepared for final stretch of college careers
As the Valley City State University softball team swept a double-header Tuesday against the University of Minnesota - Crookston, there was plenty of excitement over the two wins.
But at times, third baseman Jane Pettit admits she was momentarily caught off guard.
Standing on second base, Pettit would catch a glimpse of the Vikings’ dugout and find herself getting a bit emotional.
“Sometimes you just catch yourself having one of those moments where you just look at them and you’re like ‘I’m going to miss this,’” Pettit said.
After the Tuesday wins, the Vikings wrap up their home schedule with a double-header against Bemidji (Minn.) State today at 3 p.m.
It will be the last time that Pettit and five other seniors — Emma Nelson, Katie McBride, Sara Gullickson, Cyndi Figol, and Jen Shadlock — take the field for the Vikings at home. The team finishes the season with the Dakota Athletic Conference tournament this weekend.
The six seniors are a group that Valley City coach Chad Slyter is sad to see go, both because of personality and because of talent.
“In one way, shape or form, they all do something that benefits our team,” Slyter said.
In terms of personality, Jane Pettit and Cyndi Figol are opposites.
Pettit is loud and outgoing. Figol freely admits to being the “quiet one.”
There are at least two things they have in common.
One- a love of softball. Two- they both accepted a the NAIA’s offer for an extra year of eligibility to athletes affected by the flooding that cancelled the 2009 spring season.
It was a decision that allowed them to play an extra year, but also required them to maintain full-time status as students for the extra year.
“When I first found out, I was at home and Slyter called us and just said our season’s over, so that was a shock,” Figol said.
For both, the allure of playing another year that kept them most interested in the opportunity.
“A lot of people told me, ‘You can only play ball once, so do it as long as you possibly can. You can always work the rest of your life,’” Pettit said.
Slyter praised the passion of the two.
“I think that says a lot about them as athletes and how much they love the game,” he said. “Both of them could have easily graduated last year and moved on with their lives.”
This year, they both have played a key part in the Vikings success. Pettit leads the team with a .436 batting average and is second on the team with 26 runs batted in.
Figol is among the top hitters, posting a .344 average, with eight doubles and 24 RBI.
Because of their tenure, both will leave VCSU with at least 101 victories, more than any other players in VCSU history, Slyter said.
In her college career, arguably nobody had a rougher start than Sara Gullickson.
Nearly three years ago, in late April 2009, Gullickson’s car went off Interstate 94, west of Valley City, into Hobart Lake.
The car was submerged for roughly a half hour before she was rescued and she spent the next nine days in a coma, garnering news coverage throughout the region.
“To me, she’s a living miracle,” Slyter said. “When you think about the millions of things that have to happen in the right order for her to be where she is right now is really amazing. It makes you keep things in perspective.”
Throughout her recovery, one thing was for sure — she wanted to play softball.
“(Playing) was just a milestone for that,” Gullickson said. “I know I’m a strong person and I just got right back up.
“After I got home from the hospital, I was out walking every day or even a couple of times every day and then I got into jogging and then I just started running. My muscles built up so fast after I’d lost it all.”
By the time the next season started, she was back in softball shape and played 31 games, used primarily as a runner, and has been a role player on the roster since.
Even today, the story is still a curiosity for the opposition.
“I’ll have opposing coaches that will ask me about her,” Slyter said. “You know, ‘where’s that kid now?’
“I’ll just say ‘She’s on our team, see if you can pick her out,’ because you can’t.”
The flooded freshman year
Things were different when Jen Shadlock started at VCSU.
“Coming in my first year, we only had once senior, so it was kind of a different atmosphere,” Shadlock said. “There’s that much more leadership (this year) and it’s a great group of girls.”
But, like Gullickson, Shadlock had her freshman year on the team cut short by the floods in 2009.
Shadlock said it was “awful” waiting to hear about the outcomes of the flood.
“The biggest part I was upset with was that I didn’t get to say goodbye to everybody,” she said. “You build those friendships and you build that trust. Going through something as tragic as that, coming back made us that much stronger the year after.”
Shadlock said many of her teammates that she had grown close to, she only saw by chance if they were moving of their dorms on the same day. But it gave the teammates an appreciation for each other and a chance to bond.
Slyter said Shadlock was always a leader, even when she wasn’t getting much playing time.
Over the years she’s morphed into a dual threat, contributing both offensively and as the No. 2 pitcher on the team.
Shadlock, though, simply appreciates how close the team is.
“I don’t know how we aren’t sick of each other, the amount of time we spend together,” she said. “I guess that means we have great team chemistry.”
The junior college transfers
When the pitcher/catcher duo of Katie McBride and Emma Nelson transferred into Valley City last season from Itasca Community College in Grand Rapids, Mich., plenty of teammates expected them to be joined at the hip.
A rarity in sports, the two have played together, by Nelson’s count for ten years.
That includes high school, junior college and their two years at VCSU.
“People here, when they first saw us, they were like ‘Oh man, these two must be inseparable,’” McBride said.
Though friendly, the two made a concentrated effort to branch out and find new friends amongst the team but also maintained the closeness they had growing up.
“We’re not as close as people think, but I know that I can come to her for anything,” Nelson said. “I’ve had a lot of ups and downs outside of softball, a lot of family emergencies and stuff, and I wouldn’t be able to get through it without Katie here as a friend.”
On the field, the chemistry of the two shows.
Nelson spends her time behind the plate as the Vikings’ regular catcher and maintains a key spot in the lineup.
In 32 games, McBride sits at 13-12 this season, but the most telling stat is her 1.66 earned run average.
“We don’t talk much before a game, but what everyone thinks is really weird is that when I’m pitching to her, we don’t really say much to each other,” McBride said. “We just know what’s happening and what the other one’s thinking.”
Entering the real world
After the season ends, the seniors will graduate and move on to the oft-dreaded “real world,” which means an eventual parting of ways.
For the seniors, the feeling is bittersweet — sad that it’s over, happy that they had the memories they did.
“It’s a team that actually cared and a team that wanted to be there all the time,” McBride said. “It’s amazing to have that, but it’s going to be hard to say goodbye to a game that I love.”