CLEMSON SOFTBALL STAR Valerie Cagle grabs her proper arm as she stands within the pitcher’s circle at Vartabedian Subject in Pittsburgh. Utilizing her left hand, she pulls her proper arm throughout her chest, as firmly and as far she will be able to.
It is Might 14, 2022, and Clemson is taking part in Florida State within the closing of the ACC softball championships. The Tigers, in simply this system’s second full yr, are hoping to win their first convention title. However Cagle, the 2021 ACC Freshman of the Yr and ACC Participant of the Yr, cannot entertain such excessive hopes. She’s simply in search of a technique to cease the ache.
I am unable to hold doing this, her mind flashes over and over.
Cagle shakes her proper arm, then grabs it once more. She pulls it tight throughout her chest. Hundreds of eyes are watching as she discreetly makes an attempt a medical process on her personal shoulder. She’s attempting to pop her biceps tendon, which had slipped out of its groove — once more — again into place.
“I used to be looking for some kind of consolation and hoped that placing the tendon again in place would alleviate a few of that strain,” Cagle says. “I used to be on the level, although, that nothing was serving to.”
I am unable to hold doing this.
Cagle’s velocity had dipped all season lengthy because the ache degree rose, and whereas pundits and outsiders attributed her struggles to a sophomore hunch, a choose few knew the reality. Most individuals watching Cagle that day absolutely suppose she is merely stretching, however Clemson’s athletic coach Katie Rovtar instantly acknowledges what’s going on. She has seen it earlier than.
Within the sixth inning, Cagle offers up a three-run house run. Clemson loses to FSU 8-6.
As Cagle walks off the sector and spots Rovtar, they make eye contact. The identical thought pops into every of their minds.
One thing has to alter.
Change does come, nevertheless it’s not the sort of change that Cagle or Rovtar had prayed for. Two weeks later, Clemson’s 2022 softball season involves a detailed after Cagle surrenders 5 runs to Oklahoma State within the tremendous regionals.
Sitting subsequent to her senior teammate and greatest buddy Cammy Pereira after the season-ending loss, Cagle would not even have the capability to decide on her phrases fastidiously as Pereira fights again tears now that her collegiate profession is full. The ache is all-consuming.
“I am so glad that is over,” Cagle says.
THE BEGINNING TOOK place three weeks earlier than Cagle’s 2022 season even began. She had seen a nagging ache in her proper shoulder, and it shortly grew to ranges that have been alarming.
She had loads of causes to disregard it. Individually, she was coming off a exceptional season. The 5-foot-9 dual-threat star had grow to be the face of the brand new Clemson softball program. She had thrown two no-hitters on her technique to a 28-7 file and a 1.16 ERA in 2021. On the plate, she had led the crew in a number of classes, together with a .404 batting common, an .821 slugging share, 17 house runs and 45 RBIs. She was the primary participant ever to double up because the convention’s Participant of the Yr and its Freshman of the Yr. As for the crew, Clemson’s program had certified for the NCAA event in its first full season. Now it may set up itself as a perennial contender.
However three weeks earlier than the beginning of her sophomore season, Clemson docs attributed Cagle’s ache to persistent proximal biceps tendonitis — irritation of the tendon that connects the biceps muscle to the shoulder and the elbow. And worse: the irritation had resulted in one thing referred to as biceps subluxation. Usually, the biceps tendon nestles in a groove earlier than becoming a member of the shoulder joint. However due to the irritation, Cagle’s tendon slipped out and in of the groove, inflicting her unspeakable ache.
Days earlier than the season started, after a number of MRIs and checks, docs issued 5 phrases that put Cagle within the sort of jam she had not often seen from the pitcher’s circle: You may’t trigger additional injury.
She may play the season, they stated, and proceed to pitch and hit, however the ache could be current. It could possibly be extreme. It is perhaps debilitating. The burden was on her to determine. She confronted a sequence of questions that athletes in all sports activities, in any respect ranges, of all ages, have confronted. Would she be referred to as a quitter if she determined to take time away? Would she set an unfair instance to her teammates — and to younger women watching her — if she determined to play by means of the ache? Would she be a detriment to the crew if she performed and could not convey her greatest? And the way a lot ache may she presumably put up with so as to proceed taking part in the sport she beloved?
The questions did not cease there. The “what ifs'” bounced round her mind. What if she performs and the ache will get worse? What if she sits out and the ache would not get higher? What if she performs and fails? What if she performs and finally ends up taking the spot of a teammate who may have a profession second? What if she performs and the Clemson medical workers figures out an answer — and all of it works out?
This a lot was clear: For granted-handed pitcher and a left-handed batter, her proper shoulder could be below relentless stress in the course of the lengthy season. Ten days earlier than Clemson’s opener, the medical workers shut her down for seven days and gave her a cortisone injection. They ordered her to relaxation.
“We actually needed to decide earlier than the season began,” Rovtar says. “Was this possible? Are we presumably inflicting extra hurt than good? Can she tolerate this? Are we doing what’s greatest for her? Do we have to shut this down now and take into account redshirting the season?”
In the long run, Cagle saved going again to these 5 key phrases: You may’t trigger additional injury. “My crew wants me,” she thought. “I’m not a quitter. I’ll play by means of this ache.”
The fallout from that call has but to stop. She misplaced sleep, she misplaced velocity, she misplaced video games, she misplaced her smile. Little did she know on the time, however the determination to confront the ache would solely result in one other agonizing determination down the highway.
Now, greater than a yr later, her velocity and smile are again. So, too, are the wins. She sleeps like a child. The peaks and valleys in her yearlong journey make Cagle one of the intriguing gamers on the highway to the 2023 Ladies’s Faculty World Sequence.
On that day again in 2022 when Cagle determined she was going to courageous the ache to play, she additionally made one other determination: No one outdoors of the Clemson softball crew and her instant household would know in regards to the analysis. She did not need folks to suppose she was utilizing her ache as an excuse.
However Cagle’s degree dropped. Everybody may see it. Teammates and coaches estimated that she performed the 2022 season at 65% to 70%. Some referred to as it a sophomore hunch, whereas others questioned the superlatives they’d used to explain her expertise after her enthralling 2021 season.
Earlier than and after video games, Rovtar and her crew went to work. She would do hours of prehab main as much as video games. After, she’d get a deep therapeutic massage to flush out the waste merchandise. She bought dry needling and cupping to assist with the irritation. She was placed on muscle restrictions in different elements of her physique to assist ease her shoulder ache.
However what they could not give her was sleep. It evaded Cagle. Each night time. She struggled to get comfy. When she was fortunate sufficient to go to sleep, she would normally get up a number of hours later in ache. The cycle continued.
“Interrupted sleep creates a fair worse sample,” Rovtar says. “As a result of the easiest way that our physique heals is throughout sleep.”
Mark Cagle, Valerie’s father, remembered instances when folks would pat his daughter’s shoulders after video games, and she or he would wince and say, “Please do not do this, it hurts a lot.”
Cagle’s confidence pale. First, when she pitched, after which when she hit.
“The ache from pitching was on her thoughts [so much] that it affected her hitting and she or he began to swing at pitches I’ve by no means seen her swing at,” Pereira says. “She was anxious on the plate, she wasn’t assured in herself. I can inform when she takes a sure pitch that she’s going to hit a house run or she’s going to get successful as a result of I can inform how locked in she was, and that utterly dissipated.”
Cagle not often complained, however when folks did hear her speak about her ache, they usually downplayed her struggles.
“She would say, ‘Oh, I am simply hurting a lot,’ and folks would say, ‘Effectively, it have to be good to be in ache and nonetheless go 3-for-4 and be batting .450 and have that many strikeouts,'” Pereira says. “These feedback most likely did extra hurt to her psychological well being than good.”
Towards the top of March, the Clemson teaching workers determined to reduce Cagle’s pitching. In the event that they performed three video games in every week, they rested her for 2 and despatched her to the circle for one.
“She simply wasn’t making the ball transfer or perhaps have a really feel for hitting her spots in addition to she will be able to,” Clemson affiliate head coach Kyle Jamieson says. “However she nonetheless was capable of throw exhausting, and she or he threw greater than she pitched, if that is smart.”
Cagle completed the season 16-9 with a 2.46 ERA. On the plate, she hit .308 with 13 house runs and 44 RBIs. She was named a USA Softball Collegiate Participant of the Yr prime 25 finalist.
“She performed at 70% and remains to be probably the greatest gamers within the nation,” Rovtar says.
However each Cagle and Rovtar knew: One thing has to alter.
MARK CAGLE WAS steadfast in his method to softball.
Velocity first; management will come later.
A form of softball guru in Yorktown, Virginia, Mark Cagle repeated this sentence over and over at house. First to his oldest daughter — a softball participant and 9 years Valerie’s senior — after which his son — a baseball participant and two years Valerie’s senior. They might journey as a household, and Valerie would watch her older siblings take the sector virtually each weekend. By the point Valerie was able to pitch, at age 6, she had heard it sufficient instances for it to be her personal mantra.
Even at 6, she pitched the ball with as a lot pace as she may muster, which may clarify her prevailing reminiscence of these first days. “Hitting was my factor,” Valerie says.
Within the circle, she could not even make it by means of an inning. Which solely made her need to strive more durable.
Valerie was homeschooled, which meant she had some wiggle room to follow greater than youngsters who went to high school. She waited patiently for her father to reach from his job at 3:30 p.m. every single day, and they’d head to their yard — the place Mark had constructed a pitcher’s mound and a bow web — and spent hours working towards her pitching. With all her would possibly.
“Pitching is a kind of issues the place you need to do it virtually every single day to be very profitable with it, and it was cool and loopy that someone can simply purchase into the method that a lot,” says Claire Smeltzer, Cagle’s childhood buddy and journey ball teammate.
Usually, Mark would announce to his daughter and Smeltzer, “If Valerie hits a house run throughout follow, you get Slurpees.” Smeltzer would beg Valerie to hit a house run so they might cease on the 7-Eleven on the best way house.
“We stopped to get a Slurpee virtually every single day,” Smeltzer says.
As a result of Cagle was homeschooled, sports activities turned an vital pipeline to her friends. She tried subject hockey and soccer, however nothing in comparison with softball. Her crew turned her social outlet. Her teammates turned her buddies. She beloved that her particular person expertise may contribute to the general success of the crew.
Between the ages of 14 and 17, Cagle performed for a journey crew in Virginia named the Hanover Hornets. They traveled everywhere in the South taking part in in high-profile tournaments. Coach Chad Radcliffe remembers pulling as much as follow and listening to Cagle earlier than seeing her. She repeatedly arrived along with her father an hour earlier than follow and pitched buckets of balls.
“I’d at all times crack a joke, what number of buckets? And it will at all times be 5, six, seven buckets,” Radcliffe says. “That’s 250 to 300 balls at a time.”
Cagle additionally stayed at the very least an hour after follow, Radcliffe recollected, spending extra time working towards — this time her hitting.
Radcliffe thought Cagle was a “wild factor” when she first began pitching for his crew. A wild factor who by no means backed down.
“She walked some gamers, however the distinctive factor that I believed was she would possibly stroll two to a few batters in a row after which she turned proper round and struck out three youngsters,” Radcliffe says.
It took mere weeks for Radcliffe to understand she was going to be a particular pitcher. With the bases loaded and two outs, Radcliffe determined to ship a 14-year-old Cagle into the circle to (hopefully) get them out of the jam. Radcliffe remembers a peaceful Cagle taking the sector, as if she knew she may do that in her sleep. Even then, Cagle had a bullish method to softball: Put me in. I’ll determine it out.
“Valerie got here in and struck out the final lady and we received the sport, and I knew proper then that she was going to be particular,” Radcliffe says.
It was then that it dawned on Mark, too. “I wasn’t certain till then,” he says.
As she grew older, Cagle turned a dominant pressure — each hitting and pitching — on the journey circuit. When Cagle was 17, the Hornets performed in opposition to a well-regarded Tennessee Fury. Radcliffe remembers your entire stadium freezing after they heard a crack emanating from Cagle’s bat after which a loud dinging noise. Cagle had hit a ball so exhausting it hit a light-weight publish midway up and made a loud noise like a “bell ringing.” It was a line-drive house run.
Cagle beloved setting outlandish targets for herself. She advised Radcliffe she wished to hit a 300-foot ball someday. She achieved it a number of months earlier than leaving for school when the Hornets have been working towards at a males’s softball subject. She advised Radcliffe her faculty jersey quantity could be 72.
Why 72? He requested.
“As a result of I need to pitch 72 miles per hour,” she responded merely.
In 2016, she dedicated to the College of Delaware, however she decommitted after a training change.
Enter Clemson. A brand new program that was in search of its cornerstone.
THE NUMBER OF innings Clemson head coach John Rittman needed to watch Cagle play earlier than he made up his thoughts that she wanted to be in his first recruiting class? Three. Jamieson, Clemson’s affiliate head coach, had seen her play journey ball a number of years earlier, again when she was dedicated to Delaware. “She’s simply a kind of — you are strolling by and she or he makes you cease,” he remembers considering.
In fall 2018, when Jamieson heard that she had decommitted from Delaware, he referred to as Rittman. Rittman made his technique to considered one of Cagle’s video games within the subsequent few days. He remembers her doing all the things you possibly can on a softball subject in these three innings.
“She was pitching about 70 miles an hour, she hit a line drive [and] it was proper over the shortstop’s head — after which they moved her from pitcher to the outfield and she or he made two performs within the outfield that simply confirmed her athleticism,” Rittman says.
Instantly after, he referred to as Jamieson. “I hope we will persuade her into coming to Clemson,” he stated.
It did not take a lot. Cagle beloved that she would play a job in constructing a brand new dream for Clemson. Rittman, who had coached at Stanford and with the U.S. nationwide crew, advised her he was placing collectively a crew that might be aggressive from the get-go. Clemson would make historical past and he wished her to be part of that. He organized a campus go to for her, and that was all it took.
Throughout one of many crew’s first practices — earlier than the softball subject was even completed — Radcliffe referred to as Jamieson to check out Cagle. Jamieson advised him a narrative of how he had arrange eight gamers within the outfield and requested Clemson’s pitchers to pitch to Cagle.
“I am not kidding you, 10 pitches later, there’s nonetheless not a ball within the outfield,” Jamieson advised him. “They’re everywhere in the fence, and all the women are like, ‘Who is that this?'”
Within the 27 video games Clemson performed in 2020 earlier than the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the season, Cagle recorded Clemson’s first house run at Clemson Softball Stadium in opposition to Western Carolina, earned this system’s first save in opposition to Pittsburgh, helped Clemson win its first ACC recreation with a walk-off house run and helped the Tigers win their first recreation in opposition to a ranked opponent — Georgia — by pitching a whole recreation. She began all 27 video games, hitting .376 and 10 house runs. She additionally achieved her purpose of throwing a 72 mph pitch, so she set a brand new purpose: get to 72 wins and 72 house runs in her faculty profession. (Spoiler: She already has 76 wins and 58 house runs.)
When Rittman introduced that the season was canceled and the crew was going house, it felt like the top of the world. The Clemson softball dream — and by extension Cagle’s faculty softball dream — was simply starting to take form. However Cagle realized as they returned for the 2021 season that the earlier yr gave them a “real looking style” of what the crew may accomplish. And now, she would get an additional yr to convey Clemson’s dream to life.
She saved in contact along with her teammates in the course of the pandemic, organising Zoom exercises with Pereira and Bailey Taylor. Cagle would be a part of early and do additional lunges as she waited for her teammates. After one exercise, Taylor could not stroll the subsequent day after doing squat lunges and squat jumps. When she texted the group, Cagle responded, “Even I’m struggling to stroll.” To which Taylor responded, “Effectively, if Valerie is sore, no surprise we’re sore.”
When softball resumed in 2021, Cagle was instantly in kind. She began all 52 video games, together with 32 at pitcher. She threw greater than 3,000 pitches and linked on 63 hits.
“Valerie took a brunt of the innings that yr, and I believe it actually helped her develop and mature,” Rittman says. “However I additionally suppose it took its toll on her bodily as nicely.”
Throughout Clemson’s 2021 NCAA regional in opposition to Alabama, Cagle felt ache in her shoulder for the primary time.
“I requested her, ‘What’s up?’ And she or he’s like, ‘I do not know, my shoulder hurts. It simply would not really feel proper,'” says Clemson assistant coach Courtney Breault. “And I am like, ‘OK, nicely are you able to go?” And she or he’s like, ‘Yeah, after all.'”
When the season ended and Cagle’s routine eased up, she felt higher. In November, she represented Group USA’s U18 nationwide crew on the Junior Pan American Video games and the U18 World Cup in Colombia and Peru. From the circle and on the plate, she helped Group USA win gold in each and was named MVP on the World Cup.
However when she returned to Clemson in January 2022, with three weeks to go earlier than the season began, the ache returned. It was worse than earlier than.
ON A JULY MORNING 5 weeks after her agonizing 2022 season ended, Cagle sits within the passenger seat of Rovtar’s automotive, bracing herself for a four-hour journey from Clemson to Birmingham, Alabama. She is about to fulfill with an orthopedic surgeon on the College of Alabama.
The ache that she felt on the softball subject had leaked into her on a regular basis life. Each time she bent down to choose up her water bottle from her backpack, she felt ache capturing down from her neck all the best way to her proper wrist. She barely slept two hours the night time earlier than, the shoulder ache prohibiting her from falling asleep. She will be able to’t keep in mind the final time she smiled.
The Clemson medical workers had exhausted its choices. The day the 2022 season ended, she was banned from taking part in softball. No hitting or pitching for 5 weeks. The remaining, they thought, would ease her ache.
They have been fallacious. Her fixed companion for six months now, the ache by no means subsided. After a month of this so-called therapeutic relaxation, she may barely stir her mashed potatoes on the range. Softball was her old flame, however cooking was her second. Now neither gave her pleasure.
One thing has to alter.
In Birmingham, Dr. Lyle Cain confirms Cagle’s conclusion. There are not any further non-surgical choices. With out surgical procedure, he says, Cagle could be compelled to deal with persistent ache the remainder of her profession. In all probability the remainder of her life.
However surgical procedure comes with a danger too: There isn’t any assure Cagle will be capable of throw 70 mph-plus after the surgical procedure.
There isn’t any case research for Cain to emulate. One of these surgical procedure, biceps tenodesis, has been carried out on baseball gamers, who emerged simply positive as hitters and overhand pitchers. However what about an underhand pitcher? Her pitch pace, the factor her dad prioritized over all others, just isn’t assured to return.
Cagle remembers Cain’s warning: “We do not have something documented to know what this [surgery] does to velocity in a softball pitcher. We’re relocating your biceps tendon — that’s not the place God positioned it, that is not the place it was supposed to be from the get-go. So, we do not precisely know what that final result appears to be like like.”
After the appointment, Cagle buckles her seatbelt in Rovtar’s automotive and opens her calendar. Her thoughts is made up.
She desires to stir her mashed potatoes with out feeling excruciating ache in her shoulder. She desires to have the ability to elevate her backpack. At some point, she desires to have the ability to elevate her kids with out feeling the dread that arrives earlier than the ache. Sure, she would like to pitch the best way she used to pitch once more. However that is greater than softball. She desires to have the ability to smile once more.
She calls her dad and mom. She calls Rittman.
“I’m going to get the surgical procedure,” she says.
Rovtar is uneasy. They’re wading into the unknown, and she or he goes to be chargeable for Cagle’s rehab. “That is somewhat bit extra nerve-wracking once I’m wanting one of many prime 10 gamers within the nation within the face and being like, ‘You understand what? That is your determination. We’ll determine it out collectively,'” she says now.
Clemson’s medical workers pores over analysis to see if there’s a case much like Cagle’s they’ll base her restoration on. They discover none. Cagle, Rovtar says, will wind up being a pioneer past all of the Clemson softball firsts.
“Once we do that,” she tells Cagle, “you are going to be the primary one to do that, and we’ll be chargeable for writing the e-book on how we did this.”
Days later, Cagle returns to Birmingham, this time for her biceps to be minimize open. She would not know if she will be able to ever be the pitcher she as soon as was. However she is at peace along with her determination.
THE NIGHT BEFORE her surgical procedure, Cagle sits on the mattress in her lodge room in Birmingham and opens her laptop computer. She sorts “bicep tendonitis surgical procedure,” pulls up a YouTube video of a physician performing the surgical procedure and takes a deep breath. As a well being science main, a part of her is “fascinated by these things.”
“I used to be already having surgical procedure; the choice was made. I would as nicely see what they are going to do,” Cagle says.
After a fitful night time, she feels calm earlier than her 6 a.m. surgical procedure. Cagle remembers being rolled into the surgical procedure room on July 19, then nothing. The process — Dr. Cain eliminated the tendon from its groove, minimize the infected half, drilled a gap in her higher arm and reattached the tendon to her humerus — takes half-hour.
When Cagle will get again to campus, she falls asleep in minutes. “It may need been the meds,” she says, however she sleeps with out ache and disturbance for the primary time in six months. Two days after surgical procedure, Cagle checks optimistic for COVID-19, however even with a slight fever and congestion, she feels higher than she has in months.
“When your physique lives in a persistent state of ache, you are in flight-or-fight mode on a regular basis,” Rovtar says. “So with the ability to take away the ache mechanism, she was lastly capable of calm down.”
Rovtar maps out her rehab plan. For the primary three weeks, Cagle will carry out easy range-of-motion workout routines. She is requested to elevate her proper hand, place her palm in opposition to the wall and press; she is requested to rotate her wrists, then her shoulders, then her arm. She continuously tells Rovtar, “That is boring, give me one thing more durable.” Rovtar responds, “No, I really cannot, we’re not there but.”
She begins working after six weeks. She begins hitting and throwing overhand after three months. All of it comes simple. Each day she waits, anticipating one thing to go fallacious. Anticipating the ache to return. However the ache has disappeared. And her smile returns.
Mark Cagle remembers the primary time he really believed his daughter may pitch like she used to. It was 4½ months into her rehab. She had been cleared to throw underhand, and Valerie requested him to catch for her.
It had been years since Valerie threw to her dad. She was means too quick for that. However, as a result of she was recovering, and would not throw greater than 70 %, she wished him to be current for it.
Her velocity wasn’t what it as soon as was, however he seen her physique language. Her shoulders weren’t hunched over like they have been most of final yr. Her rhythm was again. She appeared comfy.
“Your pace is coming again,” he stated to her. “You may get it again.”
VALERIE CAGLE BREAKS right into a smile that makes dimples in her cheeks as she wraps her proper arm round Rittman. Her Clemson teammates run to her, circle round her, leaping in pleasure. They wrap her in a hug as she bows her head. Her smile refuses to fade.
The McWhorter Stadium crowd erupts.
It is March 8, 2023 — some three months since she threw her first post-surgery pitch — and Cagle has simply made historical past.
In entrance of a packed Clemson crowd, Cagle turns into the primary individual in program historical past to throw an ideal recreation. She retires all 15 batters she faces, hanging out eight of them in 5 innings, serving to Clemson beat Mercer 18-0.
She just isn’t normally one to rejoice large. Prior to now, she was identified for her stoicism in her celebrations. However that day and since, she has proven a childlike freedom to her celebration, pleasantly stunning her teammates and coaches.
To Rittman, her excellent recreation is “an excellent accomplishment,” however what’s extra spectacular to him is her March 26 immaculate inning — three strikeouts on 9 pitches — in opposition to Georgia Tech.
“These have been the 9 filthiest pitches in a row to a few hitters in opposition to [a] actually good-hitting crew,” Rittman says.
Her efforts translated to accolades. She was named the ACC Participant of the Yr for the second time in her profession. On Wednesday, she was named considered one of three finalists for the USA Softball Collegiate Participant of the Yr award. She is hitting .457 with 18 house runs, 53 RBIs and 46 runs scored. Her slugging share is .889. Within the circle, she is 23-5 with 177 strikeouts, 7 solo shutouts and a 1.20 ERA.
The previous month, although, has been tough for Clemson; after beginning the season 37-1, the Tigers have gone 9-8 since April 6. For the primary time in program historical past, Clemson did not make it to the ACC championship recreation after getting no-hit by Duke in a 2-0 semifinal loss.
Nonetheless, Clemson is seeded No. 16 for the NCAA event and can open Friday in opposition to UNC Greensboro within the double-elimination regional. Additionally of their regional are Auburn and Cal State Fullerton.
In spite of everything she has been by means of, Cagle has adopted a big-picture view and stays optimistic. She is devoted to creating extra historical past this postseason. Her eyes are nonetheless on the nationwide championship.
However her method to softball has modified. She is aware of the way it feels to be unable to do the essential issues in life with out encountering immeasurable ache. Now that she will be able to choose up her backpack, stir the meals she likes to prepare dinner and sleep with out interruption, she has simplified her method to the sport.
“I need to have enjoyable,” she says.