OKLAHOMA CITY – You never know how much you really love something until it is taken away.
Jessica Shults knows that feeling all too well.
A year ago this week one of the nation’s best catchers, one of the nation’s best female athletes, one of the leaders of the Oklahoma squad – as a sophomore – was not herself at the 2011 Women’s College World Series.
A rising star in Patty Gasso’s Sooner lineup, Shults hit .364 as a freshman, cranking 15 home runs. Her second season started on a record-setting pace but was derailed when things just weren’t right.
Fatigue and a loss of energy, coupled with a loss of more than 20 pounds, had Shults wondering what was going on. A young and healthy athlete is not supposed to feel this way. A native of Valencia, Calif., she admitted to hiding it, not wanting to admit, to herself and everybody else, that something was wrong, really wrong.
|WOMEN’S COLLEGE WORLD SERIES|
June 3 Highlights
Oklahoma 5, Arizona State 3
Alabama 5, California 2
Getting to Know
• LSU | UC | USF | OU | UO | ASU | UT | UA
• WCWS the best medicine for Shults
• Alabama stands tall at WCWS
• Oklahoma’s powerful punch
• LSU’s long, winding road
• Two better than one for Bears
• How a Kiwi changed the Ducks
• Bulls following plan to the letter
• Previewing the Women’s College World Series
During the final week of the 2011 regular season a colonoscopy revealed Shults had pan-ulcerative colitis, an inflammatory bowel disease that affects the digestive system. Although her father suffered from the same disease, all Shults knew was that it was painful and made playing softball, actually doing anything, very difficult at times. That being said, it was not going to keep her from playing with teammates in the postseason.
But on a morning she will never forget, she was unable to get out of bed. Soon she was in a hospital bed wearing something very different than catcher’s gear. Thus began the long process of battling everyday; the medication, the discipline, a new way of life.
“It hasn’t been easy,” said Shults. “But I’ve learned to deal with it.”
Shults finished 2011 with a .338 batting average, 19 homers and 58 runs batted in. Already battling, she started the season-ending loss to Missouri in the designated player role, doing whatever she could to contribute.
Among the symptoms of ulcerative colitis is cramping and abdominal pain. Some people suffer with a poor appetite, fatigue, and anemia. Others have joint pain, redness, swelling, and liver problems.
On Sunday afternoon at the 2012 WCWS Shults did not look like someone who was “suffering” from anything.
In the bottom of the third inning, tied at 2-2 with Arizona State, a batter after Keilani Ricketts had tied the game with a bloop single, Shults lined a Dallas Escobedo pitch into right centerfield for a two-run double that put the Sooners up 4-2. Shults finished the Sooners’ finals clinching the 5-3 win against the Sun Devils 2-for-3. In the 2012 postseason she improved to 12-for-22, a stellar .545 batting average.
In the excessive Oklahoma heat she also donned the catcher’s gear she’s grown to love.
“I’ve never really taken the game out of my comfort zone; I’ve never tried to get too up or too down because I really feel everything is going to happen for a reason after going through my experience last year,” said Shults, who will suit up tonight in the first game of the best-of-three championship series. “I really try and not let things bug me too much, that’s been a big thing, and I have changed my eating habits. I don’t want to be out of the game again.”
Battling ulcerative colitis has changed the way Shults approaches life. And being a big-time college athlete has also given her a medium, an audience, a place to fight back. Early in the spring schedule Shults noticed a particular event scheduled for June 2, the Oklahoma City Take Steps for Crohn’s and Colitis, a walk to raise money for research into the diseases. Most around Sooner softball would probably be leery of scheduling anything the week of the Women’s College World Series, but Shults was confident the day would be free.
“Jessica Shults has been bothering me for the last three months because there is an ulcerative colitis walk that’s going on [Saturday],” said Gasso after Friday night’s victory against California. “And I said, ‘We’re going to be playing.’ She goes, ‘No, we’re not going to be playing on that day.’ And I’m not even thinking – I mean, this was a long time ago, so I’m not even thinking about what she’s talking about. But she had it all planned. She knew exactly where we were going to be [June 2].”
So the entire team took a couple of hours on Saturday and walked in the downtown Oklahoma City fundraiser in support of those who suffer from Crohn’s and Colitis and, specifically, for teammate Jessica Shults.
“I would do anything Jessica asked me to do,” said Ricketts. “She has worked so hard to help this team get here. She inspires everybody on this team.”
“About three months ago I found out about the walk,” said Shults. “Coach [Patty Gasso] came up to me and said ‘Shults we could be playing that day.’ I told her that we were not going to play that day because we were going to be waiting to play on Sunday.
“To have everybody come out and support me and the cause was awesome. There was a lot more support than I expected and the biggest thing is that we were able to raise a lot of money. People are becoming really aware of the disease. It was great that ESPN came out and did some things. It’s a great cause and is only going to help some of the people who are going through what I am dealing with.”
Shults has certainly dealt with it well in 2012.
She has played all 61 games for the 53-8 Sooners. Only once, the third game of the schedule, did Shults not start at catcher. Entering Monday evening the docket shows a .382 average, 19 homers, 59 RBIs, and a .763 slugging percentage.
“I feel like I’ve prepared for this game my whole life, prepared for the big stage,” said Shults. “It really does calm me down, and knowing how hard the team has worked all year long to get here, how much effort we’ve put in to getting here, the jitters are all gone because we feel like we are supposed to be here.
“I feel great right now. I’m ready to win a national championship.”
There is no cure for a disease Shults may have to live with the rest of her life. Two wins in the next three days would not be bad medicine.