College softball: Martin and teammates are heartbroken

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, March 17, 2020

By Mike London

SALISBURY — There were rumors, but Catawba’s softball team practiced Thursday, then cleaned up the field.

Business, as usual.

Then players started thinking about the long bus ride to Lincoln Memorial to play a South Atlantic Conference doubleheader that had been moved up from Saturday to Friday because of weather concerns.

“We were about to head to the bus when Coach (Mandy Harris-Morgan) said, ‘Let’s go meet in center field,'” Catawba second baseman Taylor Martin said.

Seniors Martin and Grace Holland, a senior infielder, just stared at each other. This was different. The Indians never met in center field.

“We have our meetings in the dugout,” Martin said. “So we sort of knew this wasn’t going to be good. It was like, ‘Oh, gosh, here it comes.'”

It was worse than anyone imagined.

Harris-Morgan broke the numbing news that the Indians had held their last practice. The 2020 season was over. The conference had decided to shut down all sports for the remainder of the school year due to concerns over the potential impact of COVID-19.

“Our coach is tough, none of us had ever seen her cry before, and she started crying when she told us,” Martin said. “My heart shattered. It was without a doubt the worst feeling of my life. Tears everywhere. I was too devastated to go to class the next day. It felt like a bad dream. I just kept hoping that somehow I’d wake up from it and we’d be on the bus to Lincoln Memorial.”

The season hadn’t started very well for the Indians, but they’d just gotten a Sunday sweep at Limestone, fighting to win two one-run games. There was a feeling that they’d look back on Limestone as a turning point.

“We’d played that last doubleheader on the road and everyone’s parents hadn’t been able to go,” Martin said. “I felt bad about that because now they wouldn’t get to see them play again. I felt sad for my teammates who had come back from ACL injuries to play with us. That’s 10 long months of rehab, and they’d just busted it to get back on the field. Kayla Pederson was one of those ACL girls, and she’d really gotten hot with the bat. We’re a close team, a lot of chemistry, girls who liked playing for each other. We all still believed this was going to be a good season.”

It was a short season. The record book will show that the Indians were 10-12.

It was an abrupt, harsh end to the senior season for Martin, a 5-foot bundle of energy who was the Rowan County Athlete of the Year for the 2015-16 school year. Martin scored in double figures for a 27-3 West Rowan basketball team, probably set digs records as a volleyball libero and led a second-place softball team in runs scored and diving stops.

Martin came to Catawba mostly because of her strong relationship with previous coaches Adrian Gantt and Nan Whitley, but halfway through her time at Catawba she had to adjust to not having either one of them.

She turned in an oustanding freshman year on the softball field, playing a variety of positions, infield and outfield, and was second team All-South Atlantic Conference.

Martin tried to play volleyball as well as softball for a while after that, tried to balance two varsity sports with a challenging academic schedule, but it was too much. She hobbled through her sophomore softball season.

“I had a serious foot injury, and I didn’t say anything at first because I didn’t realize how bad it was and I thought I could keep playing through some pain, but then the pain got worse,” Martin said. “Then the injury was mis-diagnosed, and it lingered. Eventually, it came down to making a choice between volleyball or having surgery to fix the foot, and I chose the surgery. All I wanted to do was finish my softball career healthy.”

She missed 11 games of her junior season, but she finally did make it back on the softball field. That gave her confidence that she’d be able to play her senior year all-out and have that special season everyone had been waiting for.

“I felt like a new person this year because I hadn’t been at 100 percent for such a long time,” Martin said. “I could feel the difference mostly when I was on defense. I was covering more ground, making more stops, making quicker cuts. Everything was like it used to be. I felt great.”

But now everything feels awful.

The NCAA has announced the approval of an additional year of eligibility for senior athletes. The intent is noble, but for a Division II school like Catawba,  that’s mostly an empty gesture. Catawba doesn’t offer grad school, and it’s not like softball players are on full scholarships. They’ll soon be moving on to the next stages of their lives, joining the work force.

The softball seniors are exceptional students — nursing and physical or occupational therapy majors. They’ve already accepted (or at least received) job opportunities in their chosen fields and will be making nice salaries. This season was the final chapter of their youth, their last months of enjoying a sport they grew up excelling in — and cherishing.

Catawba senior pitcher Brooke Walser, who had a win and a save in her final day in the circle at Limestone, said her farewells to the game in a Facebook post.

“Softball is not my whole life, but it’s made my life whole,” Walser wrote.

The possible exception to this being the end of the story for Catawba’s seniors is Martin, who is headed for two years of graduate school in occupational therapy. She’s moving to Florida. With the right fit, she could play that extra year she’s been granted for a new coach and with new teammates. Harris-Morgan has made calls. There are coaches willing to give Martin a tryout.

There’s also the possibility Martin will become a graduate assistant for a softball program as she works toward her masters degree.

But it won’t be quite the same wherever she is. Through all the coaching changes and foot issues and field-drowning hurricanes, Martin never stopped loving Catawba softball.

“Everyone has been kind and sweet and sympathetic, and they’re even talking about putting together some kind of senior day for us,” Martin said. “But the lesson I’ve learned in the last week is to never take anything for granted. Who would have believed last Thursday would be our last practice as a team? Now, we’re just heartbroken. All of us are heartbroken.”