Nicole Hudson fueled by hometown pride
Summer tests your resolve the moment you step outside in the southwest corner of Missouri, down where the state runs up against the border of Oklahoma. It's hot, it's humid and ever since humans mastered the art of central air conditioning, it's the kind of place that makes it so very tempting to curl up on a couch and wait for fall.
Frankly, as much as Nicole Hudson loved softball while growing up in Webb City, part of greater Joplin, Mo., there were times when even she wondered just how healthy an affection it could be if it meant spending hour upon hour in nature's steam room, pitching balls to or hitting them off of her dad. What helped push her through the door and kept her out there for one more pitch or one more swing, and then maybe one more after that, was her imagination. Joplin's swelter faded away, replaced in her mind by the United States national team. In those moments, a little bit of sweat was a small price to pay to be one of those players.
"I worshipped those women," said Hudson, who begged her dad to take her and some friends up the road an hour or so to Springfield, Mo. when the actual national team barnstormed the state in advance of the 2004 Olympics. "We had the crappiest seats possible -- we could barely even see them playing where we were, way out in the outfield. But I was so excited to be there and to see these people that I looked up to."
She still has the photographs to prove it, a girl with braces and a big smile standing next to softball icons like Crystl Bustos, Jennie Finch and Cat Osterman. Such memories will surely make it all the sweeter when Hudson stands on the field in Oklahoma City during the World Cup of Softball this week and listens to the national anthem play before her first game as a member of Team USA -- the real thing. The daydream that took her beyond the borders of Joplin on all those afternoons has itself been replaced by packed bags that will take her to tournaments in Oklahoma City, British Columbia and Puerto Rico this summer.
She pulled off what once seemed improbable, if not downright impossible, to make the team. From her experience, that's what people from Joplin do.
"I'm so proud to be where I'm from," Hudson said. "I think people probably get really annoyed with me talking about home so much, but I really am so proud of that town and proud it's where I came from.
"The people are so hardworking and so resilient, it's just like, 'Keep bringing it.' We can handle anything."
Softball meant that Hudson and her family weren't in Joplin on May 22, 2011, when one of the deadliest tornadoes in American history hit the city. She and her teammates at the University of Missouri celebrated a regional championship that Sunday after they rallied to beat DePaul twice at home. As evening arrived and the weather worsened in Columbia, roughly 250 miles northeast of Joplin, Hudson went to dinner with her parents and grandparents, all of them with one eye on the forecasts. Her dad, Shane, was on his phone getting updates from employees at the two Domino's Pizza franchises he owned in Joplin. Then the phones on the other end lost service.
As her parents hurriedly left to return home, Hudson went back to her apartment and turned on the television, only to see the name of her hometown on the screen of a national newscast. There was only one kind of story that would make Joplin national news.
On a day when more than 150 people were killed in Joplin, all of Shane's employees survived unscathed. But one of the stores was completely destroyed.
Missouri went on to win a super regional and reach the Women's College World Series that year, which meant it wasn't until several weeks later that Hudson got a firsthand look at what she and the rest of the country had seen in photos and television images. Her parents took her to the site where one of the pizza stores had stood.
"I could see different landmarks from where I stood in one part of the town that I had no idea you could even see [from there]," Hudson recalled. "I could see to the other side of town because everything was just flat, no trees, no buildings. Just 360 degrees of devastation."
Before the tornado hit, Hudson wasn't sure whether she wanted to stay in Columbia for the summer to take classes or go home to Joplin. She had delivered pizzas for a few days the previous summer and generally loathed the experience. It didn't help that, by her own admission, she's directionally challenged and frequently managed to get lost driving around the city in which she had lived her entire life. But in the aftermath of the tornado, she knew where she was needed and where she wanted to be. While Missouri teammates Chelsea Thomas and Rhea Taylor spent that summer with Team USA, Hudson spent it delivering pizzas.
One trip, in particular, stood out. She came to a house that, like many, looked half destroyed. But the people who lived there continued to do just that, tarps covering what they could as the rebuilding process began.
"You could tell that they had been out there working every single day -- and that summer was particularly hot, it was really brutal," Hudson said. "I was delivering lunch in the middle of the day, and they gave me this really big tip and were so positive about everything. You look at their situation and you think, 'How can you be positive? You're picking up the pieces of your life.' But they were so friendly.
"That's the kind of thing that made me so proud to be where I'm from. Nobody rolled over and gave up."
When you've seen your city recover from a nightmare, there are fewer excuses not to chase a dream when the opportunity presents itself. Hudson long ago imagined herself in a Team USA uniform, but it still seemed little more than imagination run amok as recently as the start of her final college season. She wasn't on the 50-player preseason watch list for national player of the year. She wasn't among the 25 finalists at midseason. She wasn't a first-team all-conference selection. She was a patient power hitter whose underrated career was winding to a close. She contemplated whether she wanted to try the professional league or move on to the next phase of her life.
Sitting around her apartment playing cards during spring break when she got the invitation to try out for the national team, she had to read the email several times to believe what it said. Even when she got to the selection camp in Oklahoma City in early June, she still felt like the invite might have gone to the wrong person.
"It was really a bit intimidating, a lot more than I wanted it to be," Hudson said. "But I just tried to do the little things right."
She hit a home run in the first day's scrimmage, which settled her nerves (and rewarded the hours she'd spent in the days before the camp watching as much video as she could find for each of the pitchers who would be there). She showed off some defensive versatility, playing third base and left field. At one point during the second day's scrimmage, she even moved over to center field.
One small thing: She had never played center field before.
Sure enough, a batter hit a low, sinking liner to short center, the kind of ball that can make a veteran look bad. Hudson charged in, left her feet and came up with a catch even Caitlin Lowe would have applauded. Watching from behind home plate with other members of the selection committee, national team coach Ken Eriksen grinned and shook his head.
"A kid like that, who goes out there and makes a diving play in a tryout [makes you notice her]," Eriksen said. "There were a couple of other kids at that tryout, where there were balls that could have been dove after and caught -- kids that had maybe more natural talent than Nicole Hudson. Obviously, they're not the type of players we want after we see them pull up on a ball. You're trying to make the United States national team, and you're pulling up on balls? That's just not the way it's going to be. Because when it gets down to the game, and you're playing for a gold medal, you want to see a kid like Nicole Hudson leaving her feet to go after a ball to get the final out."
Odds are that if Team USA does find itself playing for a gold medal, Hudson won't be in center. Her plate discipline is more likely to win the day. The point is that if you ask her to play center, she will. And she'll try and make the play.
It took more than a year for the family to rebuild and reopen the store lost to the storm. Many in Joplin lost much more. But it did reopen, just as people rebuilt houses and a city regained normalcy. Eventually, even the trees will return. What's left is the experience.
"I know it was tough on her and her family," said former Missouri teammate and friend Jenna Marston. "Especially that next summer, going back home, she saw all the effects of the tornado -- and from what she said, what she saw that summer was even a lot better than when it first hit. I think it really had an effect on her as a person and just her outlook."
Thinking about Team USA helped Hudson get through those long summer days growing up in Joplin. When she takes the field in Oklahoma City, she will be thinking about her hometown.
"Nobody knew where we were or who we were until [the tornado] happened, which is kind of sad," Hudson said. "Then again, the whole country, even the whole world, got to see how hardworking people from this area are.
"It's just kind of cool to represent everyone here and get to be on the international stage and get to say I'm from Webb City-Joplin, Missouri."
Where maybe some girl will one day spend a long, hot, humid summer imagining she's Nicole Hudson.