My journey to the NPF was unusual, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. As a young girl, I knew I loved softball and wanted to play forever, but I wasn’t very familiar with the recruiting world. Throughout my high school career, I was a little above average but nothing spectacular. I hit my spots and threw with all the force my 100-pound body could generate, but I didn't catch the eye of too many coaches.
During my recruiting process, many factors played into my decision. If you're going through the recruiting process currently, consider a few important aspects: proximity, level of play, and best fit.
One of the first things an athlete needs to decide is how far from home they are willing to go. For me, I knew as the time got closer I wanted to stay within the region. Having my family close enough to support me was crucial. They were such a big part of getting me to this point in my career, I couldn’t imagine not having them as I continued my journey.
Next, consider the level that fits you athletically, academically, and socially. I could’ve gone to some smaller Division 1 schools or received a bigger scholarship at lower Division 2’s. Ultimately, I decided to attend a competitive Division 2, understanding that I could potentially work my way into the lineup.
I decided to stay in my hometown and play for Minnesota State University Mankato. Going in they had four pitchers and there was a high probability I would redshirt. I was fine with redshirting because coming in as a freshman I truly questioned if I belonged or if I could compete at this level. People on the outside doubted my abilities as well. One person even told my Maverick teammates that I wasn’t going to be the answer. This benefitted me in a big way then and when I made the jump to the NPF (which I’ll get to later).
In the fall of my freshman year, knowing I was probably redshirting, my understanding of my role helped me stay in my lane and focus on bettering myself. It’s easy to compare yourself to others when you are competing for a spot, but I didn’t think I was, so I just kept my head down and worked hard on my game. Towards the end of the fall, our starting catcher asked me where I thought I was in the pecking order of pitchers. I replied, “Maybe 3 or 4” … really unsure of where I stood. She responded to me saying, “No, Coley, you are our golden ticket”.
I can’t even begin to describe the impact that one conversation had on me. In that single moment, my belief in myself jumped tenfold. She told me that some of the girls were talking to the coaches about not redshirting me.
Fast forward to the spring and I earned a starting position every other game alongside our senior pitcher. I produced a record of 5-1 before I developing an arm injury that required me to take a medical redshirt.
That redshirt year was the single most important year for my development. Watch from the dugout, I learn lessons that I could’ve learned the hard way, had I been on the field. I encourage all players whether you are redshirting or just waiting for your opportunity to watch games and practices intentionally, learn from your teammates and coaches, and find a way to grow without being on the field.
The arm injury I developed spanned into the next season and didn't fully heal until our Spring break tournament during my Redshirt Freshman year. That season was a breakout year for me, the year I proved to myself and others that I could compete at the Division 2 level. Our team won the regular season, made it to the regional tournament, and I was named our conference’s Freshman and Pitcher of the Year.
Sophomore year was, well, a challenge, in more ways than one. Personally, I dealt with expectations for the first time in my collegiate career. I wasn’t that little unknown freshman anymore. As a team, we dealt with chemistry issues that tragically interfered with our success on the field. We finished the regular season third in our conference and also finished third at the conference tournament. This might not sound so bad to you, but it was the first time Minnesota State Mankato had missed post-season in eight years. Needless to say, this was not something I, or my class of sophomores, wanted to be remembered by.
My junior year was a complete 180 from sophomore year. A whole new team led to better chemistry, which allowed us to focus on our game rather than the behind the scenes stuff. For the team, this was a stepping stone year that definitely prepared us for what was to come.
We won the regular-season conference championship and won a few hard-fought games at the regional tournament. Although we came up short, we proved to ourselves that we were capable of making it to the National Tournament.
Personally, I gained the confidence and belief that no one was going to beat me. I hate talking like that, sounding cocky, but there’s a difference between cockiness, and the confidence you need to have to be the best. I received All-American honors for the first time in my career and produced statistical numbers that were up there with Morgan Foley and Hannah Perryman – a couple of Division 2 pitchers that previously played in the NPF. This gave me the incentive to continue working and have an even better year my senior year, giving my dream a chance of becoming a reality.
Senior year, wow, it sounds so cliche, but any athlete can tell you that your career is over in the blink of an eye! I even had an extra year and it felt too fast. To sum this year up in one word it would have to be ‘magical’. Literally everything went our way. With a team of only 15, we fielded the same starting lineup for each of our 71 games – with the exception of mixing it up in the circle.
That meant no big injuries, no long illness, not many obstacles to be completely honest. Everything fell perfectly into place, but a lot of the hardships we went through during my sophomore year and the growth we experienced junior year allowed for this to happen. We won the regular season with a record of 50-6 and went on to win our conference tournament. We breezed through the regional tournament and then won our Super-regional in dramatic 3 game fashion. Finally, we won to win the National Tournament, going undefeated.
Our team felt it was our destiny, we believed we could win and we believed in one another whole-heartedly. Personally, I was a unanimous 1st team All-American, received the Division 2 National Player of the Year award, the MVP of the National Tournament, and even got to be in Sports Illustrated. It was a wild year that just seemed to keep getting better and better, with little time to soak in what was happening.
With about a month left in the season, I finally admitted to my coaches and parents that I really wanted to try to make it into the NPF. It was a hard dream for me to vocalize because part of me felt foolish, I didn’t want people to think I felt like I SHOULD make it.
I relentlessly emailed the coaches and general managers of each NPF team. When I looked into the open tryouts they happened to fall the same week as our National Tournament, so I wouldn’t be able to make them. After the season ended, I sent a follow-up email to each team, letting them know why I couldn’t attend the tryouts.
Thankfully, I received a response from the Texas Charge. Minnesota connection Roman Foore was on the coaching staff, and they told me if I got to Chicago they would give me a tryout before their games against the Chicago Bandits. Long story short, I flew to Chicago with my parents on a Wednesday and went immediately from the airport to the field to throw a bullpen.
It seemed to go well and they asked me to come back the next day and throw live. When I finished throwing live they officially offered me a contract. My dream that I at one point was embarrassed to even vocalize, came true!!! I flew home on Thursday night and flew out to Texas Saturday morning, only to go straight to the field from the airport for my first game. WHAT A WHIRLWIND!
The single most important takeaway from being a D2 athlete and eventually making it into the NPF was the fact that it was an unusual route. I experienced the feeling of my career potentially being over, and then thankfully, the Charge gave me an opportunity to continue playing.
I never even imagined the NPF as the next step in my career, so I had to give everyone a run for their money by being the most grateful to put on a uniform every day. Once again, I went into it not knowing if I belonged, with rather low expectations. I knew it was going to be hard, I was going to give up some long balls, I was going to give up more runs than I was used to, and I was going to have to work harder than I ever had before- and all of that was OK.
This attitude put me in a position to succeed because my expectations of how hard it was going to be made me look at it all very realistically. I soon realized, yes, from top to bottom you are facing the best hitters in the world… but it’s still the same game that I had been playing my whole life. Make the ball miss the meat of the bat, get hitters to get themselves out, and trust my stuff.
The other lesson playing Division 2 taught me was that it doesn’t matter what other people think, as long as you believe in yourself. As I mentioned earlier, outsiders doubted me many times throughout my career. So, proving people wrong became one of my motivators. Not in a negative way, but I knew in my heart what I was capable of and I wanted people to see it.
This mentality prepared me for being my own biggest advocate when the Texas Charge folded and I was out on free agency. I fought for myself and my abilities to sign with another team even though I wasn’t a name they were familiar with from the Division 1 scene. Not only had the Texas Charge taken a chance on me, but the Chicago Bandits did next.
There are so many reasons I appreciate my journey and the path that my career took me on. There were times that I was left wondering about the “what ifs”. What if I would’ve chosen to go D1? I believe playing at the Division 2 level transformed me into the pitcher I am today and I wouldn’t be writing this post had I chosen another route. I truly feel that if I'd chosen to walk-on at a Division 1 school, I may not have received the same opportunities to grow that I had as a Maverick. Moral of the story, there is a right fit for everyone and their growth.
Regardless of the level, if you love the game enough, dream big enough, and work hard enough - you can write your own story.