Courtney Conley's ride winds down
In the first inning of an April game against Northwestern during her freshman season at Alabama, Courtney Conley struck out looking for the third out. At least that's how history and the box score will forever tell the story.
It may go down as just about the only career contribution she made unwillingly.
The second strike of the at-bat that afternoon was a foul ball that ricocheted directly into Conley's mouth and left anxious silence draped over a stadium that was moments earlier buzzing with the background noise of thousands of fans. By the time Alabama coach Patrick Murphy and the team trainer reached the batter's box, plenty of blood marked the damage. Murphy surveyed the scene and asked if she could finish the at-bat.
The trainer, Murphy recalled, looked at him like he was crazy, which might have been the appropriate response. But Conley managed to vocalize through blood and broken teeth that she could and would.
The trainer's voice of reason thankfully prevailed. Conley was replaced by a pinch hitter and retreated to the dugout to tend to wounds that would keep her out of action for two weeks and require a series of dental surgeries and orthodontic work not yet at an end three years later. It was the hitter who took her place who watched the third strike sail by to end the inning. But since Conley was replaced with two strikes, the strikeout is hers for all time.
"When it happened, when it hit her mouth, she was ready to go hit right afterward," said teammate Jackey Branham, before she added the coda only a lifelong friend can provide. "Even though her mouth was a disgusting bloody mess."
Been through it all
Five years ago, Alabama debuted murals on the outfield wall at Rhoads Stadium to honor legends who helped nurture the program from a newborn in 1997 into a national power, and eventually a national champion last season. Former stars like Shelley Laird and current pitching coach Stephanie VanBrakle were among the first to have their likenesses watch over the action on the field. New faces rotated in during the intervening years. Current Crimson Tide All-Americans Kayla Braud and Jackie Traina will likely join the list of honorees.
Conley probably won't see her face on the wall in the future. That isn't to say that a four-year regular at third base who hit 23 career home runs (and counting) didn't play a significant role in reaching the Women's College World Series in two of her first three seasons, or in Alabama beating Oklahoma in the championship series a season ago. It was her double that tied the final game against the Sooners after the Crimson Tide fell behind 3-0; her plays at third base throughout that week that saved runs time and again. She just isn't one of those players, the all-timers who serve as the standard of comparison and the occasional source of tall tales.
She isn't one of those players who defines a program.
But the closer you look, Conley is exactly the kind of player the Crimson Tide believe a program must have.
Perhaps a proud father doesn't make for the most impartial observer, but Jim Conley has seen team after team win with his daughter, whether she was a star or a role player.
"She's not an NCAA All-American like Kayla Braud, Kaila Hunt or anyone like that," he said. "But when she's out on the ball field, she has an aura about her."
Talented but not entitled. Selfless but competitive. She's had teeth knocked out and a shoulder operated on. Even now, she waits out the lingering effects of an undisclosed illness that has limited her playing time early this season. She's gone on hitting tears and endured wicked slumps. She's experienced what every player experiences -- just more of it.
"She's the type of kid that everybody on the team can look to in terms of what she has experienced," Murphy said. "She has been a role player, she has been a starter. She has been a hero; she has been a goat. She has been injured; she's gone through rehab. I mean, any type of experience she could go through in college, she's probably gone through it. And she's weathered the storm tremendously well."
That has to come from somewhere beyond Tuscaloosa, and in Courtney's case, both physically and mentally, it's a farm of more than 200 acres a little less than an hour outside of St. Louis, land that Jim said the family first acquired in the 1840s. He is a union carpenter, but she spent plenty of time as a kid doing the kind of work kids do in such settings -- baling hay with her grandfather, who lived up the road on the same land, or helping her dad chop firewood for the wood burner that heats their house. She was literally one of a kind as a softball player, named Missouri's player of the year while at Eureka High School, but she was also one of more than a dozen cousins roaming the family land.
"You always had to be selfless with that many people," Courtney said. "You would always have to share; you would always have to be around people that you loved constantly. That's the kind of thing that it is here at Alabama. You have to be selfless with your teammates. You've got to be competitive, like my cousins brought out in me, but at the same time, if you lose, you've got to have a good spirit about it."
It was also to the farm that she returned in the days after the tornado that bore down on Tuscaloosa in the spring of 2011, which killed dozens and destroyed wide swaths of neighborhoods near the university campus. She arrived home on a Thursday -- all players sent home for the weekend -- greeted at the airport in St. Louis by her father but also by television cameras eager to get a report from someone who had been in the tornado's wake. By Saturday morning she had started to organize a relief drive. At first, she figured she could collect a few boxes of donated items to bring back to those in need. She collected enough in a matter of days to fill a semitrailer operated by a friend of her dad.
"The power of one person doing what she did was just unbelievable," Murphy said. "To me, to this day, it's one of those most remarkable things I've ever seen."
Leaving a mark
No story is quite as simple as an idyllic childhood riding four-wheelers and making midnight walks through the woods. By her father's recollection, Courtney was about 3 years old the first time he got an inkling of her passion for softball. It wasn't young Tiger Woods hitting golf balls on "The Mike Douglas Show," but she threw a fit when her dad wouldn't hit the ball as hard to her as he did to her sister, four years older. That's where it began, but Jim also noted it was after he and Courtney's mother, Lisa, divorced a few years later that his daughter seemed to lock in on pursuing the sport to its highest possible level. Perhaps it was one thing she could perfect in an imperfect world.
She is reluctant to talk about those things, acknowledging only that there have been twists and turns along the way.
In the moments after the national championship last season she found her way into the stands and jumped into her dad's arms. Ecstatic, she told him "We did it." He thought she meant the team and agreed that they had.
No, she corrected, the two of them had done it.
"Courtney has absolutely overcome, I think, a ton of obstacles since she was young, just personal issues and stuff like that," Branham said. "A lot of other kids with the same issues could easily have gone a bad route or done stupid things with their lives. But Courtney's always stayed on a straight path, and she knows what she wants.
"I'm extremely proud that she's overcome so much in her life and she's able to make a big impact on other people's lives, especially young girls looking up to her. I just think that's fantastic."
Her face may not be on the outfield wall, but it doesn't get built without players like her.