TAMPA — She couldn't throw a strike.
At the worst moments of her softball life, University of Tampa junior Makaleigh Dooley grappled with unimaginable demons.
At random unexplainable moments, she became a pitcher who couldn't throw a strike. Sometimes, it wasn't close. Sometimes, the ball soared over the catcher's head.
"It used to be so hard for me to put my head around it," said Dooley, who graduated from Wharton High School. "I mean, I've played softball my whole life … and I can't throw a strike?
"If it would happen at practice, Coach would be like, 'That's enough. Somebody else get out there and pitch.' I would just sit in the dugout and cry. But over time, I came to understand it. It's something that happens to golfers and sometimes baseball players. It's not something I could control."
Dooley has consulted with mental coaches. She has learned techniques to control her mind and the strike-throwing issues haven't surfaced this season. She has leaned on Spartans coach Leslie Kanter.
"It's not a fun thing," Kanter said. "It's a scary thing to think about. But Makaleigh was determined to do whatever it took to be successful."
Dooley now refers to the pitcher's circle as her "sanctuary."
"When you're in there, nothing else matters," she said. "It's all about the game. It's all about the opportunity to use your talent and help your team.
"You can have all the physical skills in the world, but this is a mental game. To be successful, you have to be in control of your own mind and your own self."
Dooley said she knows that better than anyone.
She's the ace for UT. She already has been a first-team all-Sunshine State Conference honoree. She has pitched a no-hitter and also provides some offensive pop. She has tasted great success.
"We're relying on her a lot," Kanter said. "She said she'd pitch every single game if necessary. She has a lot on her shoulders, but she continues to lead us with a lot of enthusiasm. She's a winner."
But Dooley has largely been defined by the ability to overcome adversity.
"I've been in lots of pressure situations and do well there, so I don't think it's brought on by stress," Dooley said. "You just wonder, 'How could this be happening to me?' Your friends and parents are asking the same question.
"You just have to keep at it until it turns around. You keep the faith. It comes out of nowhere and just happens. I can feel it mid-pitch. It depends on how mentally strong I am that day, but now I have the ability to fix it on the next pitch. It's all in how you train your mind."
Dooley's triumph over control issues was largely brought about by the qualities that brought her to pitching.
Confidence. Swagger. Belief.
"I did soccer, swimming, gymnastics, all of that, but at age 8, I found softball," Dooley said. "I wanted to be the pitcher. I wanted the ball in my hand.
"I don't think I ever got tired of it, but I know it's not for everyone. You get put in a lot of pressure situations and it takes a special kind of person to deal with that. But I've always loved it. I like being in control out there."
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Part of Dooley's control has been learning how to temper her emotions. She's fiery and that's an important part of her game. But she no longer lets her emotions get the best of her.
"I used to get really mad at myself or somebody else for making a mistake," Dooley said. "It all boils down to the fact that we're a team at the end of the day. I wouldn't be able to do anything without the people who have my back.
"No matter what's going on out there, I can't get down on myself, either. My dad always tells me that the world doesn't meet anybody halfway. That means you have to work for it, no matter how entitled you think you are."
If there are difficult times ahead, Dooley said she's well-equipped to handle them. Whether it's finding the strike zone or juggling the responsibilities of a student-athlete, Dooley is in control.
She's a psychology major. One day, she'd like to help injured athletes with their rehabilitation or find ways to keep them positive. That's for the future. Right now, she's a pitcher.
"When things don't go that well, you tend to ask yourself, 'Do I want to keep doing this? Is it worth it?'" Dooley said. "I've always wanted to pitch. I wouldn't be happy if I wasn't pitching. All the work, all the obstacles, it has all been worth it."