As a general rule, I don’t set alarms for Saturday mornings. 

But when Luke Wagner, head softball coach, asked if I wanted to join the team for a doubleheader in Valparaiso, I couldn’t resist. 

Something I hadn’t yet experienced in my role as faculty athletic representative was riding a team bus to a competition. 

When Coach Wagner suggested this would be a great way for a faculty member to fully immerse themselves into the world of athletics, at least for a day, I was ecstatic!

I arrived at the Recreation-Fitness Center around 8:40 a.m. By that time, the players had collaboratively loaded the bus with their gear, coolers of food and more. I’m not sure how long they’d been there or how they knew who was supposed to bring what, but somehow they had everything they needed when the 9 a.m. departure time arrived. 

In matching purple sweatshirts and black sweatpants, your Maple Leaf softball team took to the road to battle it out with Valparaiso University, a Division I team from northwest Indiana. 

When we arrived, the girls stepped off the bus looking confident and ready to play. They worked together to unload the bus and set up their dugout — everyone knew their job and did it well. 

Within minutes they were ready to warm up, and then it was finally time to play! I was nervous and excited. I love Maple Leaf athletics and I love to win, but somehow this felt different. I found myself nervously pacing, reminding the girls to drink plenty of water and reapply sunscreen, and cheering louder than I knew I could. I was all in.

I’m not a sports writer, so I can’t provide game day stats that would make sense. The team won the first game 1-0, and lost the second game in 10 innings with a score of 10-9. They fought hard the whole way. It was a great day to be a Maple Leaf! Then, just like that, we were home 10 hours later. I will never look at our student-athletes the same way again.

I’ve always been a supporter of student-athletes. Going to school full time is hard enough, and these students add hours of practice and games to their already busy schedules. I’ve never doubted that these girls were working hard, but this experience has led me to an even deeper understanding of what it means to be a Maple Leaf softball player. 

A few things I learned:

One: Student-athletes start early. I was shocked by how many other teams were training by 9 a.m. Baseball was on the field, basketball was in the gym, tennis was warming up for matches, and at least two other teams were getting ready to travel to games. I can’t imagine doing this when I was a college student. Wake up early AND exercise? Pass.

Two: These girls are tough as nails. Blood, vomit, dislocated limbs — you name it. They never quit. 

Three: They love dill pickles. They told me it helped with leg cramps. I told them to cite their source. #skeptical.

Four: They support each other no matter what. Made an error? Shake it off. Struck out? Make ‘em pay next time. I never heard a discouraging comment.

Five: They’re classy, not sassy. Even when seemingly obvious calls didn’t go our way, Coach Wagner and the girls were true champions of character. 

Six: This team has a growth mindset. Several girls initiated a meeting with Wagner on the ride home to get feedback about how they could improve their own game and be a better teammate to their peers.

And finally, I learned that when a coach asks you to go along on a bus ride to an away game, you say yes. Even if it means setting an alarm on a Saturday.