April 29, 2014
By Ben Brockman `16
Fear and uncertainty hang with heavy silence any time an athlete goes down with an injury. The Notre Dame softball team felt that weight last spring when junior catcher Cassidy Whidden went down with a knee injury on May 17, 2013 against Virginia Tech at the NCAA Lexington Regional.
"It is the weirdest thing, tearing your ACL. It is like an out of body experience," Whidden says. "From the moment that it happened I knew that it wasn't good. ... I prepared myself for the worst right from the beginning."
For a catcher, whose job entails constant crouching, it was the worst-case scenario. A knee injury could have been career-ending for Whidden, providing a crushing blow to her and her team.
"With catching you use your knees a lot. My surgeon said, `Any other position, you'd be fine,'" Whidden recalls. "There were definitely those doubts because there are a lot of ifs, ands and buts. You have your good days and you have your bad days, and sometimes the bad days outnumber the good days. You just have to keep on moving forward."
Whidden's recovery process was not easy, but, through it all, her mind was set on getting back onto the field come the beginning of the season at the start of 2014.
"The goal was January. That's what I kept thinking," Whidden says. "I wasn't taking no for an answer. ... I just said, `I have to get to January and we can figure it out from there.' I just wanted that shot to get on the field."
Luckily for Whidden, she had a support network already in place and her many devoted fans helped her find her way back onto the field. Whidden credits everyone from her teammates and coaches to her boyfriend, Irish football player Tony Springmann, and her family, especially her mother, Liz, who she describes is her "biggest supporter."
"Everyone did a great job of getting me back. It was not a one-person effort by any means," Whidden says. "God has a plan for everybody, and he gave me the tools to get through it."
It took months of rehab to get Whidden close to getting back onto the field, and it was not until December that she was able to get into a full catcher's squat. Her perseverance proved to be enough, though, and she was penciled into the starting lineup on opening day against Tennessee Tech this past February.
In true fighter spirit, Whidden did not wait to take advantage of her chance of being back on the field. During her first at-bat returning from injury, Whidden sent the second pitch she saw over the wall for a three-run home run.
"It was just kind of like icing on the cake," she says. "Now that I look back, it was an awesome feeling. It was just like that icing. You're back."
While that first home run was special for Whidden, her season has proved to be as eventful, making her mark in both the batter's box and behind the plate. She is batting .358 on the year, has sent 10 balls out of the park and has driven in 32 runs for the Irish this season, all career-highs.
Behind the plate she is equally impressive. Sporting a .996 fielding percentage, Whidden has only made one error in a team-leading 254 field chances. Her ACL injury has also not deterred her from attacking on the base paths. Whidden ranks third on the team in stolen bases this season, taking seven bags through 42 games. These numbers would be impressive by themselves, but coming off a devastating injury like an ACL tear, her season draws that much more attention.
"It's just a blessing that I am actually able to still do what I am able to do and catch and do something that I love," Whidden says. "Now, I have to have a purpose each time I'm on the field. I think that when I do play well, that's why, and that is really important for me to remember."
Whidden says that the purpose she now has following her injury has allowed her to begin to see the game differently, and, in coming back, she has found a new drive she did not necessarily have before.
"I took the game for granted, and I was not grateful for what I was given and just being able to [play]. I have to remind myself that I wasn't here 10 months ago - I couldn't be here on the field," Whidden says. "I guess that's just my little reminder. Every day you go out and you give it your all. That's all I can ask for."
It is evident that this season has meant a lot to Whidden, but even more evident is her passion for her teammates and the sport of softball.
"We are 17 sisters, really. You have a special relationship with everybody and everyone kind of identifies you with one thing," Whidden says. "It's just awesome because you can be yourself. That's really comforting because you don't have to put on a persona."
Whidden brings a lot to the team dynamic, and her playful personality contributes to the team's ability to simply be themselves around one another.
"I think that when I play best is when I am having fun, and our team is very conducive to fun," Whidden says. "We are a bunch of freaking nuts. I just think that I contribute that to our team dynamic."
The Notre Dame softball team is certainly special to Whidden, and the relationships that she has with her "sisters" have helped her to get back on the field and perform.
"We talk about loving and trusting one another on and off the field and that is one of our guiding principles, something that we take to heart," Whidden says. "You are never going to be left alone at Notre Dame softball. Someone is always going to be pushing you on and going to be behind you the whole way.
"And, if you do fall, there are 26 people to catch you. That's what makes our team success so great."
Whether setting up behind the plate, eyeing a pitch as she stands in the batter's box or cheering on her teammates from the dugout, Cassidy Whidden has returned from one of the lowest points of any athletes' career and risen to a height where she can see just how special each day spent on the diamond truly is.