The circle in which Kayla Cox
operates represents confinement and catharsis. Measuring 16 feet in diameter, it's a boundary for sure but plenty spacious enough for the East Bay High senior to fling her pitches and purge her mind. In this orbital realm, Cox can mesmerize and overpower hitters with her arsenal of heaters, changeups and riseballs that earned her a Division I scholarship. And the real-life tragedies that might otherwise have tormented her — divorce, death, illness, despair — can't permeate it. "Softball's been, like, my escape through all of this," Cox said.
Wednesday afternoon in Clermont, Cox again will pray to her savior, huddle with her Indians teammates, then step inside her circular haven for the Class 5A state softball semifinals. Chances are, the first few batters from Palm Beach Gardens Dwyer won't catch up to her velocity.
Chances are even better unsuspecting observers will see this slender brunet — East Bay's reigning homecoming queen — with the nitro in her right arm and full ride in hand and presume all has been mostly idyllic in her 18 years.
Kayla Ruth Cox's life and fastball are funny that way.
The first encounter will really fool you.
Refuge in the game
Cox, who signed with North Carolina State last fall, enters the state tournament with a 16-1 record, 0.21 ERA and 252 strikeouts in 134 innings. In a regular-season game against Durant in March, she fanned 20 in seven innings. A pitcher since age 9, she possesses a curveball, riser, dropball, changeup, even a screwball.
"Pretty much whatever a pitcher can throw," she said.
On a sharp night, it's all pretty nasty. Just not as nasty as what fate has thrown at her.
The product of a broken home, Cox has lived with her grandparents, Betty and Jack Miller, since she was 7. Her mom is mired in the advanced stages of cirrhosis of the liver and already has outlived her prognosis, said Cox's older brother, Joe.
Even worse, two older half-siblings — Nicole and Chris — died within the past three years. Kayla declines to discuss their deaths, but Betty acknowledges Nicole, a mom of 4-year-old twins, was killed in an alcohol-related car accident just as Kayla was preparing for a softball tournament in Texas. Joe says Chris died of a drug overdose.
Even Betty, the woman who first signed up Kayla in the East Bay Little League nine years ago and has remained her steadiest supporter, is a survivor of quadruple-bypass surgery performed when her granddaughter was 11.
Yet never once has Kayla shut it down athletically or scholastically. A member of the East Bay principal's honor roll as a straight-A student last semester, she instead says she has used her faith as a rock — and softball as a release.
"Softball has been her inspiration, her emotional lift," said Betty, who took Kayla and Joe into her Riverview home when the kids' parents agreed the Millers could better provide for them. "When life threw hard knocks at her, she always had softball."
As a sophomore, when Joe was waging a battle with — and losing to — his own demons, Kayla went 13-5 with 116 strikeouts and a 1.55 ERA. As a junior, with Nicole's death still raw in her psyche, she posted a 0.85 ERA and 267 strikeouts, including 31 in a 13-inning loss to Brandon.
This season, with her mom struggling to live, she has fought through nagging midseason arm soreness to lead East Bay to its first final four since 2001.
"I've told her countless times that she is probably one of my idols," said Indians senior Elizabeth Nugent, who enters state as the team leader in several offensive categories including batting average (.407) and home runs (four).
"Some people would just, like, back off or have to stop for some of the stuff she's gone through, because it just would tear them apart," added shortstop Nina Caisse, who watched Kayla come within a bloop single of a perfect game in last week's 4-0 playoff win over Bartow.
"It makes her stronger when she comes out here."
Faith keeps her going
Ask Kayla to explain her resilience, and she readily points to Christianity, with softball representing her circular sanctuary.
Though swamped with academic and athletic obligations these days, she still makes the weekly 60-mile round-trip drive from Betty and Jack's house to Countryside Christian Center in Clearwater, where she and Joe were baptized together about two months ago.
Away from church and the field, she indulges in Betty's homemade spaghetti and the unconditional love of her grandparents, who had living quarters set up for Kayla and Joe long before they even came to live with them.
"(Kayla's) awesome," said Joe, who at 20 acknowledges his own troubles that include a string of arrests but none in 13 months. "And I've had my share (of problems), but I've been spared. It's just our faith … that's kept us going. I think that's why I'm still here and why she's so blessed and talented, definitely."
This week in Clermont, Kayla tries to culminate her prolific prep career by bringing East Bay its first state crown. Betty anticipates a bunch of friends and loved ones, including her dad and brother, being there. Beforehand, Kayla will acknowledge them.
Then she'll enter her real inner circle. It will be bordered in white chalk.
"It's been the thing that's really kept her going," Betty said.
Joey Knight can be reached at email@example.com.