Jessica Shults still would have been one of the best hitters in college softball had she grounded out to third base in her first at-bat this season. Less than a year removed from watching in a hospital room as her Oklahoma teammates celebrated a trip to the Women's College World Series on television, she still would have been healthy, too, back on the field after being diagnosed with a disease she feared might take softball away from her. Had she turned and jogged back to the dugout after a routine out in that first at-bat, a hundred more opportunities for heroics would have followed.
But Shults wouldn't have been Shults had she made such a mundane return.
With two strikes in that first at-bat in the first inning of the season opener against Cal State Bakersfield, she drove the ball over the fence for a home run.
"I was just getting up there taking a hack," Shults said. "I've been doing it my whole life, so I didn't really think anything of it. ... I went out there and just tried to make something happen, and it just happened to go over the fence."
Oklahoma's junior catcher is a marvel with a bat. Yet she is one of the sport's rising stars at least as much because of her loud voice, easy laugh, fierce competitiveness and giant personality. Ulcerative colitis, the disease that landed her in the hospital last season, took away all of it, the bat speed and the charisma. So of course she hit a home run in her first at-bat this season. It is who Shults is.
"Honestly, there has not been a more personable athlete," Oklahoma coach Patty Gasso said of her 18 seasons in charge of one of the sport's signature programs. "She's just really the energy of our program. She leads by great example and loves to be in tough situations, wants the bat in her hands in those times, loves to win, huge competitor."
Shults had a similar encounter with the proverbial moment during a tournament in Palm Springs, Calif., early last season. An Oklahoma team expected to contend for a national championship was instead reeling after four consecutive losses and trailed Cal Poly by two runs when Shults fouled a ball off her leg and tumbled to the dirt in a heap. Instead of coming out of the game or coasting halfheartedly through the remainder of the plate appearance, she got up, limped back into the box and hit the next pitch for a three-run home run and the lead. The Sooners won that game and nine straight after it.
But it was during that same weekend last year in the desert, a homecoming of sorts for the California native, that Shults began to feel like something wasn't right, like she wasn't entirely herself. The physical symptoms she noticed, things like stomach cramps, weren't all that different from the small annoyances that come and go as part of everyday life, but the overall sensation was of a system operating half a beat off rhythm. Still, as someone who grew up trying to keep pace with an older brother, Justin, who now plays in the Houston Astros farm system, she kept her discomfort to herself.
"You couldn't tell anything was wrong with me, so I felt kind of like a baby for thinking something was wrong with me," Shults said. "Because there was no physical anything that was wrong with me. So I was like, 'Well, I'm going to play through it because I don't want anyone to think I'm weak or anything.'"
She continued to play, but a season that started on a record statistical pace tailed off. She lost more than 20 pounds, lost energy and lost her swing, all the while at a loss as to what was wrong.
"The hard part with her injury is that we saw her have some downs, we saw her very frustrated," Gasso said. "We saw her, actually, kind of deteriorating in front of our eyes last year, and it was very troublesome for all of us. She'd come out, and you could tell she should not have been in the dugout, but she wanted to be there for the team."
It wasn't until the final week of the regular season that a colonoscopy revealed the reason for the pain that had grown from an annoyance into a debilitating master. Her father has ulcerative colitis, but if that meant the name of the disease wasn't entirely unknown to her when uttered by doctors, the diagnosis nevertheless left her confused. An inflammatory bowel disease, ulcerative colitis is a chronic condition that affects the large intestine and thus the digestive system. To Shults, it didn't sound like something a 20-year-old woman should have, let alone one who is an elite athlete.
The situation reached a tipping point the morning of the NCAA tournament regional hosted by Oklahoma, not long after the initial diagnosis. Intent on playing, Shults found she couldn't even get out of bed that morning to get a glass of water. She called the team trainer and ended up in the hospital for more than a week to bring symptoms of the disease under control.
She returned to the dugout in time for the team's two games in the World Series in Oklahoma City. She even started as the designated player in the season-ending loss against Missouri, but she was a shadow of her old self, physically and emotionally.
What that appearance in the World Series did provide was an unexpected support network. Even after she was diagnosed, there was a side of Shults that didn't want to talk about a disease that affected parts of the body that aren't exactly common topics of conversation to begin with. But when her story was told to a national television audience, she began to hear from other people afflicted in the same manner. Some wanted to thank her for putting a public face on the disease and helping them come to terms with it. Others, like a former softball player from Auburn who was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis at the same age and with whom Shults still texts weekly, just wanted to offer their experience.
"It was kind of like a weight lifted off my shoulder, seeing that there are other people who have been through this, too, and that I'm not the only one and they're still making the best of their situation," Shults said. "It's going to be with me the rest of my life, and I can look at it as 'Why me?' or I can get out there and think of it as a positive thing and share my story and help other people who are going through it, too."
There is no cure for ulcerative colitis, but with daily medication and a careful diet, the odds of symptoms flaring up can be significantly diminished. So it was that a familiar personality, and not just a familiar face, returned this spring. Although, in truth, that recovery began before Shults ever checked out of the hospital. Along with certain foods, stress is a leading trigger of symptoms of the disease, yet the persuasive catcher persuaded her doctors to let her watch her team's NCAA tournament games in their offices after she discovered the television in her room didn't get the needed channel.
Shults was there in spirit, which was a step forward from barely being able to be there in body through so much of the spring.
"I think my teammates kind of felt it because I was just in a different place last spring," Shults said of her struggles. "It was hard -- literally I went to the softball field barely trying to hold on, doing everything I could, but I didn't have a personality, really, because I was just in so much pain. I didn't really see anybody because I couldn't be around anybody because I just wanted to lie down because it hurt so bad. It was not fun. I love being around people, I love having fun, so it was hard dealing with that."
Shults is indispensable for an Oklahoma team again poised to make a run at the school's second softball championship. In addition to her production at the plate, she's the steadying influence on All-American pitcher Keilani Ricketts, the person who can make anyone laugh and the competitor who commands the respect of a dugout. She plays a lot of roles, but she's merely being herself.
"She has a very consistent approach to the game," Gasso said. "She doesn't have real big ups and downs. She's not real emotional, she doesn't get all dramatic or in her own head. She's very level that way, and that's a good example for this team. I just enjoy her so much. She's the epitome of what you want in an athlete and a leader."
Put another way, she's the kind of person who would hit a home run in her first at-bat of the season.