SALEM, Va. -– Just the thought that she will be on a softball field playing for a national championship on Monday makes Nicole Workman slowly shake her head in disbelief.

It’s not because she had doubts that Central Oklahoma was good enough to make it to the finals of the NCAA Division II Softball National Championships – because she did. She just didn’t know at the beginning of 2013 that she was going to be part of the Bronchos’  -- or anyone else’s -- lineup.

So while there will be players both for Central Oklahoma and Kutztown in Monday’s championship game at the James I. Moyer Sports Complex that might have better statistics, but few would claim they had the same determination of a player who has missed almost two years of action as a result of multiple shoulder problems that have led to three major surgeries.

“It’s heart-wrenching to watch her go through the things she’s had to go through,” Workman’s mother Erin said. “But she’s a fighter.”

As a high-school student growing up in Tuttle, Okla., Workman’s abilities on the softball field drew the attention of a number of big-time college softball programs. Her play as both a pitcher and shortstop made her a sought-after recruit.

“Oklahoma was talking to me, Oklahoma State was talking to me – there were a bunch,” Workman said after Central Oklahoma’s 14-1 win against Armstrong Atlantic on Sunday. “But then the injuries started coming, and they weren’t as interested.’

The injuries led to surgeries – major surgeries. She had arthroscopic surgery while still in high school, that was followed by two rotator-cuff operations. In all, Workman estimates she spent about 20 months in rehab. And during the offseason, she expects to have a fourth surgery – this time to remove some bone spurs that are causing her problems now.

“It’s been a struggle. I’m in pain pretty much every time I play,” she said. “But I love to play, so I’m not ready to give it up yet.”

To find out where Workman got this sense of competitiveness, you need not look any farther than her parents.

Erin Workman represents the first generation of softball players in Nicole’s family. As a sophomore at Texas A&M, Erin Workman was part of a national-championship team. Her husband, Mike, also had an athletic background – he spent his free time at Northwestern Oklahoma playing on the football team’s offensive line.

“Our family has always been sports-oriented,” Nicole said.

Her mother added that the family is also very competitive, which also could have contributed to Nicole’s injury problems.

While she was probably best known as a pitcher in high school, Nicole Workman also played shortstop for her high school and summer teams. But at some point, all the stress on her shoulder was too much. The surgeries soon followed.

While Nicole has been told that the surgeries were all successful, she found that she still had limitations. Once she had healed, she enrolled at Northeastern Oklahoma A&M – a junior college in Miami, Okla. – and joined the team. She tried pitching, but her results were not real good. At shortstop, there were more problems and more pain.

“I have thought [about not playing] because it sucks every time going out on the field and knowing I can’t pitch anymore,” Workman said. “It’s hard watching someone else in the circle and knowing I can’t have the ball in there even though I want it.”

The thought of the pain still makes Erin Workman emotional.

“As a mom, I gave her that competitiveness, and I gave her that will and passion,” Erin said. “They have to take on that passion to love a game enough to go on after what she’s gone through. After three years, it’s hard as a parent – when you protect them from everything their whole life – to watch them go through that.

“I want her to be able to lift her children when she’s older. That’s the one thing that I’ve told the doctors that we’ve worked with. The one thing that we have to control is that I don’t want her to be disabled.”

During her season in junior college, Nicole found a home at third base. She tried to pitch, but that didn’t work out. And in her rehabilitated state, recruiters started coming around again. Despite that, she said never really found the right fit.

Then prior to the start of the spring 2013 semester, Nicole decided to transfer to Central Oklahoma because it offered the nursing degree she wanted to obtain.

At that point, Erin told her one-time club softball teammate that Nicole had transferred to UCO. That friend and former teammate happened to be Bronchos’ head coach Genny Stidham.

“I told Genny that Nicole was transferring, and she told me ‘I want her on my team.’”

Workman quickly got acquainted with her new teammates, and before long was the team’s starting third baseman.

“When I came on, I knew there were some really good players on the team and we were going to have a great season,” Nicole Workman said. “But you don’t expect you’re going to make it to the national tournament and play lights out, like we have been.”

After this season, Workman has two more years of eligibility remaining. She hopes to keep playing, but will need to see how she feels after her latest surgery. Because of this current experience, she’s starting to lean much more toward returning for her junior year.

She’s had the kind of postseason that would make a player want to come back for more. In Central Oklahoma’s three games in the tournament, Workman is hitting .444 with four hits and four RBIs.

“It’s been fantastic,” Stidham said. “[Nicole’s] a good kid. Her mother is her motivation back behind the scenes. She’s steady, she’s hard-working, she’s dedicated. She has been absolutely awesome for us this year.”