APPLETON, Wis. -- With all the talent in Appleton this week, perhaps the top athlete to step foot on Neuroscience Group Field at Fox Cities Stadium only tossed one pitch. And it was for a strike.

UW-Oshkosh’s Christy Cazzola returned to her hometown of Appleton, throwing the ceremonial first pitch prior to Sunday’s St. Thomas vs. Whitewater game. Being honored for her distinguished career, Cazzola added three more national titles this past weekend to her oversized trophy case with an unprecedented 17 career national championships.

“I was really nervous,” Cazzola said. “I can’t remember the last time I threw a ball and I just wanted to make sure I made it to the plate.”

It made it to the plate and crossed for a strike, much to the delight of all pitching coaches.

“I thought it was great, I thought it was an awesome to see a WIAC school and I got excited about that,” Cazzola said. “I’ve been competing against Whitewater forever and I run against University of St. Thomas girls too. And to be at a big game like this. And the crowd was so loud afterwards, I felt really honored.”

Tuesday Emory and Whitewater will hit the field to determine the 2014 national champions. With the grind of the season, conference tournaments, NCAA regionals, and Finals, we are often reminded that the season is a “marathon, not a sprint.”

For expert advice on the subject of running, sprinting, and national championships, we turned again to Cazzola who is no stranger to competing on the big stage.

“Pressure only comes from within,” Cazzola said after winning the 1,500-meter national title this weekend. “It’s important to put a little pressure on yourself but you have to have a good balance. It’s good to have a little pressure to push yourself and have those expectations.”

While Cazzola has rewritten the NCAA record books for women’s Division III track and field, her heartfelt story is an inspiring tale,

A true high school phenom, Cazzola started turning heads after winning a state title as a freshman in the 800 meters. With Division I schools knocking at her door, Cazzola felt tempted by the offers before deciding that it was not for her.

“I think everyone has to go down their own path and decide what’s best for them,” Cazzola said. “So I think part of my development as a person, I had to take those years and think about who I really wanted to be. I’m really glad with my decisions to pursue life the way that I did, as an adult and come back to college as a non-traditional student.

“If people don’t know what they want to do, take some time and work different jobs, and understand what  it’s like to work at McDonalds, as a waitress, an industrial job. Then they’ll have better respect for those people and how hard they work, regardless of how much they make, and treat them better. And really just make the world a better place.”

After winning a state title in cross country in the fall, Cazzola did not go out for track her senior year putting her competitive running career temporarily on hold.

During her five years away from the sport, Cazzola was married and had her first child, Noah, in 2006. Eventually she made the decision to go back to school and pursue a degree in postsecondary education. Upon returning to campus in 2008, she asked for a tryout with Oshkosh cross country team, before being told there are no tryouts.

As she quickly ascended back to the top, the Titans reached the national finals before Cazzola was feeling nauseous before recognizing the signs and realizing she was pregnant with her second child, Kaya. After taking all precautions and one week left in the season, doctors confirmed everything would be fine and Cazzola ran with the Titans cross country team, while carrying her daughter, guiding them to the 2008 national championship.

Kaya was born in the summer of 2009 and Cazzola returned to school in the fall of 2010. While Cazzola debated if she would could fit it in to her busy life schedule.

“I don’t think I really planned to come back to running. I just really enjoy running,” Cazzola said. “And with the team in 2008 and being a part of the Titans and making it to nationals. I wanted to get back into shape and enjoy running, but I was also trying to get a college degree and now I had a newborn baby and so those things were really my priorities at the time.”

Eventually she did return to the Titans compiling arguably the greatest career in the history of NCAA Division III track and field.

“I think it was an important part of her life to finish off her collegiate eligibility,” Oshkosh assistant track coach Drew Ludtke said. “She’ll carry that with her the rest of her life and it’s just a good message to finish what you start.”

She still plans to run competitively with a race coming up next week in St. Louis and also plans to attend USA Championships and run against some top pros as well as athletes from Division I, II, and III.

As her collegiate career ends and her coaching and teaching life soon begins. Cazzola has already begun coaching at Appleton North and is destined for greatness in any profession with her love and appreciation for the sport, teaching, and helping others flourish and prosper.

“I love inspiring young kids and watching them grow and go after own goals as people,” Cazzola said. “I struggled to do as an adolescent and to help others do that is wonderful. And it is the job for me.”

Although, she threw a perfect strike in her only pitch, adding a new sport is not in her new future. But she was very appreciative of the community’s warm reception.

“It was the first baseball game my kids went to and it was the first thing we did as a family since I got back,” Cazzola said, “and for me to be able to throw the pitch was great. But I have to really thank my brother Nick Cazzola, who was a pitcher, and my cousin Katie Fink, who plays softball at La Crosse. If it wasn’t for them I would have never been able to make that throw.”