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OKLAHOMA CITY -- Sitting in a folding chair as people with cameras, notepads and a lot of questions surrounding her, the Oklahoma sophomore Jessica Shults looked a little nervous, a distinctly unfamiliar expression on the face of one of the sport's most charismatic players.
A few minutes before player introductions in advance of Thursday's World Series game against Arizona State, the young player prone to trying to chest bump unexcitable Oklahoma coach Patty Gasso explained her absence from not only the lineup but the dugout throughout the regionals and super regionals.
"The reason I haven't been playing all postseason is I was diagnosed with pan ulcerative colitis," Shults began.
That she was in uniform as she offered the words, and then in the dugout when the game began soon thereafter, underscores that the good news is abundant, despite the rather dire-sounding rundown of her recent whereabouts.
She said she lost 25 pounds since she began to notice symptoms about two months ago. She also confirmed she was hospitalized for 10 days during the postseason to receive proper medical and nutritional treatment for ulcerative colitis, which the Mayo clinic website describes as a genetic condition "inflammatory bowel disease [IBD] that causes chronic inflammation of the digestive tract. Like Crohn's disease, another common IBD, ulcerative colitis can be debilitating and sometimes can lead to life-threatening complications"
But the disease has been manageable for Shults, and she said it will not keep her from returning to the field next season for the Sooners. In fact, Shults seemed to hold out hope that she might get a chance to play in some capacity this week, the team's first World Series trip since 2004, even as she admitted such a development was unlikely.
"I'm hoping, but we'll see," Shults said.
Her absence had been one of the NCAA tournament's biggest mysteries. Gasso remained noncommittal about the status of a star player who earned second-team All-American honors this season despite, as it turned out, battling those symptoms for much of the regular season's final two months (Gasso was unavailable for comment before the game). The revelation also explains why after starting the season on such a torrid pace that national hitting records seemed in play, Shults slumped at the plate during Big 12 play, at least by her rather lofty standards. After hitting .370 with 51 RBIs before Big 12 play began, she hit .307 with seven RBIs in conference play.
As Shults explained of her own mentality, "I figured, 'Well, I'll deal with this kind of when the season's over. I want to be here, I want to be on the team. I want to be on the field.' So that didn't work out too well. I should have probably taken things a little bit more seriously, because I didn't realize what it was doing inside me."
What was going on included stomach pain and internal bleeding, the former at least she attributed to nothing more than a diet she admitted perhaps wasn't exactly Olympian in standards. Given that she said she now feels "great" after treatment, she also wonders if maybe the same stubborn streak that assuredly helped propel her to the top of the sport in the first place might have cost her a chance to get better in time to play in Oklahoma City.
"I was kind of like maybe I should have taken the symptoms earlier on a little bit more seriously and maybe I would be in the postseason right now. I ignored symptoms, and that's kind of [why I] wanted to tall about it, so people who are seeing these symptoms will go and get checked to see what's going on in there because it can get pretty serious."
The good news is that despite the initial shock of a diagnosis of a disease she knew nothing about, it appears small changes to her diet and medicine should ensure her life doesn't change in any dramatic way. And that the next time Shults faces the media in Oklahoma City, it may well be after a game-winning home run.
And that may be precisely why she feels so much has changed.
"Honestly, [I'm] a changed person being diagnosed with this because I just can't take life for granted anymore," Shults said. "And being on the field made me realize that I love this sport, I love this team, I love Oklahoma and I just am so excited to be back here and having the opportunity even to be sitting with my team."
As the Sooners begin World Series play, just having Shults back in uniform and cheering her teammates was something good to see.