Something about the University of Wisconsin spoke to Mary Massei when the recruit made an unofficial visit to the school -- even if the message had to first work its way through layers of outerwear in the depths of a Madison winter.
"I was pretty much the Cali girl who never took off her jacket, even inside," Massei admitted.
A native of Chino Hills, Calif., a Los Angeles suburb roughly 40 miles from iconic Pacific Ocean spots like Huntington and Newport beaches, she understood pursuing a softball scholarship might take her far from those roots. Nowhere is the sport as ingrained in the culture as Southern California, evidence of which can be seen in the exports populating college rosters across the country. When Massei made plans to visit a school in Chicago, her dad suggested they pair it with a stop in Madison, a couple of hours to the northwest and home to another program that had expressed interest in the diminutive outfielder with surprising power.
She knew almost immediately upon arrival that she would be back.
"I took it to make sure I could handle the cold," Massei said of the winter trip. "But I fell in love with the school. I fell in love with this college campus and the tradition that Wisconsin has. I felt like it was a place I needed to be, where I felt that I could make a difference and help change the softball program."
It was one thing to believe that on a visit, to soak in the scene at a Badgers hockey game and be swept away amid the spirit of thousands of students and alumni ready to shift the party to the famed State Street. It was another to keep believing it as her freshman fall came and went with Madison and its charms still thousands of miles away, softball, college and life in general on hold after she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer.
The summer before she was to leave for college began like just about every other summer of her life, with her schedule dominated by softball. In fact, she had just returned from tournaments in Colorado and British Columbia when she first noticed the bump in her neck. A couple of weeks later, the bump still there, she told her mom about it. Without a sense of panic, they added a visit to the doctor to the long checklist of chores that annually confront those soon to move into dorms for the first time. On Aug. 4, less than a month before the first day of classes in Madison, she had an ultrasound. When that proved inconclusive, she returned the following day for a biopsy.
On Aug. 6, a call came from her doctor. Listening on speakerphone with her parents, she only heard that one word before she bolted the room in tears, the details left to her mom and dad.
"You hear the word 'cancer,' and you're 18 years old, and you don't really know what to think," Massei said. "Any 18-year-old, or anybody, really, relates cancer to death, and that's a scary thought."
As if the diagnosis didn't complicate matters enough, Massei didn't even know the coach whom she then had to tell about the news. The staff that recruited her had been dismissed at the end of the 2010 season. On July 1, not long before Massei first noticed the bump, Wisconsin announced that it had hired Creighton coach Brent Vigness to take over the program. Less than a week later, he instead returned to Creighton.
It wasn't until July 24 that the school finally introduced former DePaul assistant and Loyola coach Yvette Healy as its new coach. At a time of uncertainty, someone Massei didn't know and who didn't know her now controlled a big part of her future. Without a softball scholarship, financial realities likely would have left Massei at a community college close to home, a reasonable alternative but not Madison.
While on a recruiting trip in California, the new coach sat down with Massei and her parents. They met for dinner at a pizza restaurant in Huntington Beach, but the vibe, as Healy recalled it, was one of a scared family dealing with the emotional blindside of their daughter's diagnosis. The coach's message was simple.
"Look, this is about your daughter and life and getting healthy," Healy recalled telling the family. "We're going to honor her scholarship, and we want her to stay home and be with family this fall and get healthy and hopefully come back to us in the spring or the following fall."
If there was a silver lining, it was that Massei's cancer was highly treatable, especially detected as early as it was. She underwent a thyroidectomy within a week of diagnosis and an initial round of radiation at home in October. By the start of the second semester, she was able to make her way to Madison, nervous about jumping in midstream to what most other freshmen had experienced together the previous fall but appreciative of being there at all.
It turned out she needed to be in Madison, because that's where the game was waiting for her.
"It was one of the things that was keeping me sane," Massei said. "It was the motivation that I was going to get to Wisconsin and I was going to continue on with my life there."
Even out of playing shape after treatment and unable to lift weights all season, she slugged .542 in 38 starts as a freshman. Still slowed by compartment syndrome as a sophomore (and after another round of radiation the summer after her freshman year), she nonetheless hit .500 in 52 starts as a sophomore. But it's during this season, healthy and able to benefit from a full offseason of conditioning and weight lifting, that she has emerged as a standout on a national scale.
Now a junior, she's the best hitter on a team that increasingly looks like not just a lock to return to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2005 but a team capable of winning games once there. Following a midweek doubleheader sweep of Northwestern this week, Massei ranked sixth in the Big Ten in batting average, eighth in on-base percentage and ninth in slugging percentage.
A scan in the summer of 2011 showed no evidence of cancer. Massei prefers to describe it as cured, as opposed to in remission. But the experience remains a part of the person and player she is now.
"It definitely puts a lot of things in perspective for you," Massei said. "I feel like I take a lot of things with a grain of salt. I move on from situations a lot quicker. Whether anything is going on in my life, whether it's school, softball, family, friends, anything, I know that I'm going to get through it. It's not a matter of dwelling on anything. Any trial I have been faced with, or am going to be faced with, I'm going to get through."
That she got to Madison is proof enough of that.