Six years is a significant stretch of time in most any setting. Six years ago, David Letterman was still hosting late night television and TikTok didn’t exist.
But six years is an eon in college sports. Consider that when Gia Rodoni first stepped into the circle for Baylor in 2016, one of the catchers she will throw to in 2021 was still in middle school.
Now all these years later, her timeline disrupted by injuries and a pandemic, Rodoni is among those players beginning a sixth season of college softball. And even as she watches with amusement while her newest teammates struggle with the same introductory classes that once bedeviled her, the best counsel she can offer them is never lose track of the clock.
“Just enjoy your time because it does fly by quick,” Rodoni said.
Then she paused, as if suddenly aware that those words sound strange coming from her.
“Even my six years being here, I feel like it has flown by,” she continued. “So a regular four year span is going to go by in the blink of an eye.”
It is a familiar realization. It is also particularly bittersweet for Rodoni this spring. She wasn’t supposed to still be in a Getterman Stadium dugout in 2021. Mark Lumley was.
The NCAA decision to extend eligibility for athletes affected by the pandemic-shortened season gave her an extra year. She gained a season that she hopes her accumulated wisdom and perspective will allow her to enjoy to its fullest. But it arrives only after she lost a friend.
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A Baylor assistant since 2001, Lumley passed away in December after a battle with cancer. Rodoni didn’t get to spend another season with Lumley. So she will play her final one for him.
“He was a man like no other,” Rodoni said. “He and my dad are my heroes. He knew how to love well, and he cared about you more as a person than you were a softball player. That’s saying a lot because he loved softball, that was his whole life. He was always upbeat, always intentional in wanting to know how we were.
“He wanted to serve us and help us be the best person and player we could be.”
My heart is absolutely broken. There’s no man like you. I love you forever, Coach Lum. https://t.co/ckAhIS5dTi pic.twitter.com/GgNnP9RZzF— Gia Rodoni (@GiaRodoni) December 27, 2020
Lumley is part of the reason Rodoni arrived at Baylor in the first place. Maybe the biggest reason. He showed her that Baylor was a place she wanted to be. He helped convince Baylor coach Glenn Moore she was a pitcher they needed. Growing up in California, the Texas school wasn’t on her radar. Not until her dad told her to tag along with her older brother when he visited Baylor. She rolled her eyes, at least mentally, but reached out to Moore and made plans for a tour. Baylor was already recruiting Ari Hawkins, her travel ball teammate who went on to all-Big 12 honors, and Lumley offered a positive review when Moore sought more background about the team’s pitcher.
And it was Lumley who took Rodoni on that tour. He made her feel at home in Waco, made her feel comfortable — even as the two of them careened the wrong way down campus roads in a golf cart. She committed almost on the spot.
It’s remarkable to think that if not for a teammate’s bout of wildness in 2016, Rodoni might be in line for a seventh season next year. Moore originally planned to redshirt her in that first year on campus. But with the Big 12 season approaching and Kelsee Selman struggling with control, he needed help in the bullpen. She didn’t hesitate when he asked if she would sacrifice the redshirt despite having missed half the schedule. It didn’t much matter that she ultimately didn’t get many innings. She was in a place she wanted to be. Lumley had been right about that.
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The innings eventually came, of course. Lumley had been right, too, when he told Moore that she was the real deal. She went 18-4 with a 1.86 ERA as sophomore, turning heads with two no-hitters in the same regional, then 23-12 with a 1.98 ERA as the ace the following season.
A look back at the final out as Gia Rodoni's NO-NO lifts @BaylorSoftball to the Super Regional! #NCAASoftball pic.twitter.com/dVbcYL1wuk— NCAA Softball (@NCAAsoftball) May 21, 2017
In some other universe, she would have piled up another 20 wins and 250 strikeouts in 2019 and gone on with her life. She would be wrapping up nursing school soon. That wouldn’t be a bad version of the story, just different.
In our universe, her knee responded slowly to surgery that followed her junior season and she sat out that 2019 season.
Pitching has taken a physical toll on Rodoni, whose 5-foot-7 frame doesn’t just bear the brunt of a lot of innings but a lot of pitches within those innings. In addition to the knee injury, Moore said she has had multiple rhizotomies, a surgical procedure intended to alleviate chronic back pain.
“I knew she was struggling,” Moore said. “I knew it was not comfortable for her to go out. but she’s not one to complain, either. I’ve coached few players that would pitch through the pain she pitched through. She gave us everything she had, and it was a very unselfish act.”
What the coach calls unselfishness might be worrisome if it was born of desperation. If Rodoni returned for a sixth year or pitched through discomfort because she couldn’t let go of some part of her identity. It’s the difference between trying to make something last forever and making the most of the time you have. The redshirt season forced her to confront a world without softball. She is no longer afraid of it. She is ready for it. When it is time.
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“I put that label of ‘softball player’ on myself so heavily that when it was taken away it absolutely destroyed me,” Rodoni said of 2019. “I’m more than a softball player. Softball doesn’t define me as a person. It took me a long time to figure out and realize there is a life after it.
“I’m a daughter, a sister, a friend, you name it.”
Add aspiring nurse to that list. In fact, as much as she defined herself by softball prior to that revelatory redshirt season, nursing was a seed that had already taking root. Nursing school, and eventually a focus in pediatric nursing, has been her plan for a long time. With her present on hold this past year, she watched her future in the nurses on the front lines of the pandemic.
“It just reaffirms this is a job I want to be in and serve people,” Rodoni said. “It’s reaffirmed my heart for serving others. It reassured me this is what I want to do with my life after softball.”
But only after one final season.
Rodoni said she cried for days when the 2020 season was canceled, uncertain whether she had unknowingly pitched her final game. So there wasn’t a decision to make when the NCAA granted additional eligibility. She wanted to get out there one more time.
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It was in that final start of 2020, after all, that she had started to feel something like her old self again. She threw a one-hit shutout in that midweek start against Houston on March 10. Better yet, to her way of thinking, she struck out 11 batters. All of them struck out swinging, including the final two outs of the game. She knows she can trust the defense behind her. She has gotten better at letting them help her out. But there will never be anything quite as sweet as the swing and miss.
“As a pitcher I want to dominate hitters,” said Rodoni, who entered the season with the 10th best career strikeout rate among active Division I pitchers. “And that’s how I feel like I dominate them, is with swings and misses. That’s a confidence booster in itself.
“I was getting quite a few more of those in the last few games I threw. That was showing me I was hitting where I want to throw and moving the ball to different parts of the plate.”
Moore suggested that, his pitcher’s optimism aside, she wasn’t quite her old self last March. But he, Lumley and pitching coach Britni Newman, the same three people that had worked with her throughout her time in Waco, could see her getting there. That may again be the case this season. Moore would like to keep her innings down early in the season, circumstances willing. He knows that she will be ready when it counts by the time May rolls around.
He knows he can trust her. Lumley told him so many years ago.
“This season is for him,” Rodoni said of her late friend. “We want to play in honor of him. We just want to keep his positive energy and his love for softball at Getterman Stadium.
“Baylor softball won’t ever be the same without him.”