Sunday, February 25, 2018

Kayla Cox's journey leads to starring role for Tampa softball

TAMPA — The raw Carolina winter left her pitching fingers chapped, her forearm stiff and her psyche brittle.

When her homesickness was at its most acute stage, North Carolina State freshman Kayla Cox would sit in her black Honda Civic, cue her grandmother's address into the GPS and nearly weep at the procession of directions from Raleigh to Riverview.

From street to highway to interstate, they led to the grandmother who reared her, the mother whose condition had long since been deemed terminal, and the palm trees.

"That was one of the first things I noticed" about North Carolina, said Cox, whose turbo-charged right arm led East Bay to a state high school title in 2010. "There are no palm trees."

Three springs later, Cox, who has dodged a succession of potholes during her improbable softball odyssey, emits a serenity as profound as her screwball. Her latest reincarnation includes foliage, family, even a fiance.

It ultimately may feature a national championship as well.

"It really did work out," said Cox, who has led the University of Tampa (31-6, 19-5) to a recent No. 2 national ranking and share of the Sunshine State Conference title as a senior.

"God's plan was just kind of mapped out and I just had to trust it. That was the biggest obstacle to overcome, to trust that, because it was really tough leaving (N.C. State). I know I let down a lot of people, but it worked out for sure."

A two-time Division II All-American and the 2013 SSC pitcher of the year, Cox hopes to add a final flourish to the greatest pitching career in Spartans lore.

In three years, she has established myriad UT career and season records. Her 11 no-hitters, 56 2/3 consecutive scoreless innings and 83 2/3 consecutive innings without an earned run all are program bests.

"I've kind of found the love for the game again since I came here," she said.

She'll enter next month's NCAA South Regional (at a site to be determined) with a 16-3 record and 0.78 ERA. In 144 1/3 innings, she has struck out 193 and walked 33.

At 22, her velocity is at an apex, and she feels more in command of the half-dozen pitches in her repertoire. What's more, her ailing mom's doorstep and a steaming bowl of her grandma's garbanzo bean soup are a short drive away.

Three years ago, they may as well have been in another galaxy.

"She was missing being home," said grandmother Betty Miller, whose maternal influence is so strong that Cox is listed as Miller's "daughter" in her UT bio (Cox's parents are divorced). "She loved (N.C. State), it was a good school, but she wanted to come home."

Exiting Raleigh, however, entailed far more than hopping in the Civic and speeding south. Cox would leave anguish, resentment, even a broken bridge in her rear-view mirror.

"It was upsetting for everybody in my family, it just was," said Sherrie Allbritten, Cox's travel-ball coach and second surrogate mom, who had put her own reputation on the line to help Cox secure a scholarship from the Wolfpack.

"It tore me and Kayla apart for a few years."

Strife initially had brought them together.

Entering her junior year at East Bay, Cox's grades were foundering as her personal life unraveled. Two half-siblings had died (one in a car accident, the other from a drug overdose), and her mom's battle with cirrhosis of the liver had reached a dire stage.

At that point, Cox and Miller — with whom she had lived since age 7 — went to Allbritten, who helped coach Pinellas County-based Team FLA with her husband. Allbritten's offer of a roster spot came with strings: Cox would have to improve academically.

Ultimately, Cox was practicing under the Allbrittens' care and studying under their roof. Frequently, she'd sleep at their Palm Harbor home and rise before dawn in time to make it to East Bay for the morning's first bell.

"It was absolutely amazing in what she did and what she accomplished," Sherrie Allbritten said. "She gave up a lot of social life to do what she was doing."

Ultimately, Cox evolved into a straight-A student at East Bay, not to mention a prep All-American under veteran Indians coach Glenn Rodriguez.

As a junior, she signed a letter of intent with the Wolfpack, whose roster featured the Allbrittens' daughter, Alyssa. When Cox moved to Raleigh, she joined Alyssa in the three-bedroom townhome Sherrie owned.

As a freshman for the Wolfpack, she finished 14-14 with a 2.83 ERA in 183 1/3 innings. The demands of Division I, and distance from home, had taken a visible toll, but Cox assured coach Lisa Navas in a face-to-face meeting in Navas' office that she'd return.

That August, in a tearful phone call to Navas, she told her coach she wouldn't be back. The 'Pack, 26-23 in Cox's lone season, finished 23-31 the next year, and Navas was dismissed.

"Basically it was homesickness, and I think it had a lot to do also with committing my whole life to softball," Cox said. "It was tough … and I think at the time I wasn't mature enough to deal with that."

Had Cox's maturity matched her velocity in '11, she says she might have stuck it out. For a long stretch, she felt partly responsible for Navas' firing. Eventually, she likely would have adapted to the cold and constraints on her time. Thing is, she wouldn't trade Act II for anything.

Family members are fixtures at her UT games, and she has mended fences with Allbritten. She regularly visits her mom, Sharon Davis, who continues her fight for life in east Hillsborough County. A communications degree is a handful of classes away.

In December, boyfriend Eric Fornataro — a reliever for the St. Louis Cardinals — proposed to her on a St. Petersburg beach with the wedding planned for Dec. 12, 2015. At her senior day ceremony on Friday, five family members — including Betty and her dad, Jody — posed with her for photos in the pitcher's circle.

Palm trees swayed in the background.

"Couldn't be prouder," Allbritten said. "Look what she's gone through. … It's amazing that she has landed on her feet."

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