LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Alanna Hadley, life careening in a direction she never intended, needed Valdosta State to save her.
On Thursday, No. 1 Valdosta State, national championship hopes unexpectedly slipping away, needed Alanna Hadley to save them.
Facing early elimination from the 2012 Division II NCAA championships against Augustana, junior pitcher Courtney Gunby allowed three runs in only two innings. Hadley, a senior, had one of her worst outings of the season the day before, allowing seven runs (two earned) in two innings in a disappointing loss to UC San Diego. Nevertheless, Valdosta State head coach Thomas Macera trusted that his star, a first-team All-American boasting a 30-4 record and a 0.95 ERA, would regain her focus with the season in the balance. Nine innings later, Hadley and her teammates mobbed senior third baseman Samantha Posey at home plate after her 11th inning walk-off home run cleared the fence.
Hadley had yielded only one run while recording the 27 most important outs of her career.
“She knows it’s her last hurrah,” Macera said. “She knows it’s an all or nothing thing for her and she knows she’s done after this. Anytime somebody gets to the end of a career and they really realize it’s the end of a career, they’re going to do everything they can to make it worth their while.”
Her path to the mound on Thursday was a circuitous — and complicated — one. The mutually beneficial relationship between school and player was born in the waning days of summer in 2011 alongside the sparkling shores of northwest Florida. Hadley had been a member of the 2010 Georgia team that reached the Division I Women’s College World Series. A year later, she was serving shrimp and pouring refills, not striking out batters, in a bayside seafood restaurant in Panama City, Fla. On the side, she taught young girls how to spin a softball like she once had. But after 15 months spent associating with people who’d steered her life away from school with softball, she couldn’t ignore a sour feeling tugging from deep within.
“I thought I wanted to be done with it, but I realized when I was done that these are the best years of my life and I can’t get these back,” she said. “So I decided that I wanted to go back to school and finish. That was the most important thing.”
Hadley’s life in cleats began at age five. She grew up in Dacula, Ga., a northern suburb of Atlanta less than an hour from UGA’s campus in Athens. She was raised to be a Bulldog, and yearned throughout childhood to one day become one.
“I grew up having season tickets to the football games,” she said. “My whole family were diehard Georgia fans. It was always a dream to play there.”
After a slight detour to the beach, Hadley went on to live her dream. She spent her first two years out of high school pitching at Gulf Coast, a community college in Panama City, before earning a spot on Georgia’s team during her junior year. Though she logged only 7.2 innings as a Bulldog, Hadley was thrilled to be a part of a team that reached the final four of the Women’s College World Series before bowing out against UCLA. But, at the time, she didn’t realize that the loss was her last game in a Georgia uniform. Her dream, though realized, would be short-lived.
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Hadley’s grandfather died soon after — the funeral was on her first day of classes the next fall – and it sent Hadley into a spiral of sadness and destructive behavior. Though she won’t speak of specifics, she said she began associating with a “the wrong people.” Suffocated by despair and a degenerating lifestyle, her focus on softball and school evaporated. She dropped out of UGA, giving up on the team she’d loved since her youth, soon after her senior year began.
From Athens, she returned to Panama City. After a directionless year back by the beach waiting tables and teaching softball, she ran into her former Gulf Coast coach at one of her pupil’s softball tournaments. There, she finally confided her regret in someone she trusted.
“I told him I really missed it,” she said. “I didn’t feel like I would be complete if I didn’t finish my last year of softball.”
After opening up to her coach, he put her in touch with Macera at Valdosta State, who had lost three pitchers to graduation after the 2011 season. Despite Hadley’s personal problems and extended time outside of the pitching circle, Macera was willing to give her a shot. She signed after one visit and was back in class, and in bullpen sessions, in a matter of weeks.
“We took a chance,” Macera said. “It hasn’t been an easy road with her by any means…but we stuck with her, and we’ve had some issues, but she’s worked through all that.”
As Hadley began to find balance in her life off the field throughout the latter half of 2011, she started to rediscover her skills on it. Her pitches routinely reach the low-60s, uncommon for Division II players, so Macera wasn’t concerned with velocity. He taught her the nuances of throwing a changeup and sharpened her control, eliminating her propensity to overthrow. When Hadley arrived at Valdosta State, she hadn’t thrown a pitch in 15 months and Macera worried she wouldn’t rediscover the skills that earned her a spot on an elite Division I team. But those fears have long been alleviated as she’s been, perhaps, the nation’s top pitcher, leading her team to a 54-5 record.
“She’s been a great asset,” senior infielder Marti Littlefield said. “She’s a really determined pitcher. She’s very dedicated and she’s really focused. And she’s a very good person.”
Hadley is moved by the notion that her teammates think so highly of her. She’s confided in Littlefield about her past troubles and has grown close to a new set of teammates a year after abandoning others. She plans on graduating from Valdosta state in 2013 and is weighing pursuing a career as a flight attendant or coach. When she reflects on the impact this season – and this team – have had, her emotions take hold.
“What I was doing before wasn’t good,” she said, wiping a flood of tears away from the corners of her eyes. “And I’m so blessed that I got a chance to come here and play. I’ve been through a lot and this season turned my life around.”