For home run trot, two teams become one

Published Apr. 28, 2014

Occasionally, fate can take a familiar narrative and slather it in pine tar, just to give it that little something extra. To mesmerize. To create movement.

And were they ever moved Saturday at Florida Southern College.

"Everybody was pretty much bawling," Eckerd College softball assistant coach Pat Affrunti said of both teams.

It wasn't merely that the final pitch of Florida Southern senior Chelsea Oglevie's career was sent soaring into the Lakeland sky. Nor was it the timing, though Eckerd sophomore Kara Oberer's three-run home run with two outs in the top of the seventh inning clinched a 4-2 Tritons victory.

Even the stakes — the win assured Eckerd its first winning season (27-25) in the program's 30-season history — were subplot material.

The surreal and the stirring were yet to unfold. What elicited tears and embraces and ovations and iPhone snapshots was how the pitcher reacted.

After hurling her final pitch a bit high and outside, and watching Oberer whip her bat and upper torso around to apply enough force on the ball to send it roughly 240 feet, Oglevie's heart didn't sink.

It enlarged.

"She did what any coach or parent would want their child to accomplish," Affrunti said.

• • •

The Tritons had returned to St. Petersburg around 1:30 Saturday morning after a 15-inning, 5-4 loss to the Mocs on Friday night. Less than seven hours later, their bus was again eastbound on the Howard Frankland Bridge, en route back to Lakeland for an afternoon double­header against Florida Southern.

Oberer, the team's best power hitter, ate some chocolate chip cookies on the way. It's a concession to gastronomical superstition that had served the Osceola High alumna well: In 2013, she led the Sunshine State Conference with 12 home runs and had seven this season.

But the whole Keebler empire couldn't keep her healthy.

There was the hand injury, the nagging shoulder problem, the ball she fouled off her face earlier in the season. Even then, she begged through bleeding lips to stay in the game. Eckerd coach Josh Beauregard's conscience wouldn't allow it.

"It feels like we're at the doctor's every other week," Beauregard said.

With a runner on second base in the first inning of Saturday's first game, she lunged to her left for a chopper up the middle and felt her right knee lock up. Beauregard initially thought the 84-degree heat or physical effects from Friday's marathon caused her legs to cramp.

Oberer got up and tried to put pressure on the leg. After the next pitch, she waved for Beauregard to take her out.

"I tried icing it down and re-stretching it," she said. "I could walk a little bit, and then I tried to run and it would just lock right back up."

Knowing her legs were out of commission, Beauregard held out hope for her bat. Because starters are allowed to re-enter a game once in softball, he and his assistant Affrunti agreed that if an opportunity arose later in the day for Oberer to bat, they would seize it.

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It came in the top of the last inning, with two outs, two runners on base and Eckerd trailing 2-1.

"(Beauregard) asked if I could just hit the ball as hard as I can and try to walk down to first base," Oberer said. "That's all we needed. I said, 'Yeah, I'll hit it as hard as I can, as far as I can.' "

• • •

Affrunti has known Oglevie's family since her grade-school days. He even helped coach her when she starred at Sickles High, once watching her pitch an eight-inning perfect game in the playoffs.

When his son Austin — then barely out of preschool — tagged along with him at Sickles' ballpark, Oglevie always seemed to be the first player to hug him or sidle up to him on the bench.

"The kid is the silent leader really," Affrunti said. "She motivates her team. She's loud in the dugout but not a troublemaker, never has been. Her work ethic is crazy."

Oglevie had carved out a solid two seasons as a starter at the Division II level after transferring from State College of Florida in Bradenton. With FSC's playoff hopes eliminated, Saturday's first game would be her benediction.

She was efficient through the first six innings, scattering seven hits but allowing only one run. In the seventh, she gave up a leadoff walk, recorded two outs on a sacrifice bunt and fly out, then walked another batter.

At that point, Oberer limped to the batter's box with one directive from her coach: If you make contact, just try to get to first base, no farther.

She worked a 2-and-2 count when Oglevie delivered the last riseball of her career. Oberer recalls the pitch being inside, but Oglevie said maybe that was because she was crowding the plate.

"It was honestly not a terrible pitch," Oglevie said, "but she's so powerful that a pitch coming up and the way she swings going up, it was just perfect contact."

• • •

Unaware the ball was in the process of clearing the leftfield fence, Oberer ran as hard as she could to first before the knee locked completely up, forcing her to hop on her left leg the last few feet.

She recalls a coach (maybe Affrunti, coaching first base) telling her to stop. Per NCAA rules, a pinch-runner could've been inserted and the homer would've stood. Any physical assistance from coaches or trainers — she was a baserunner, after all — and she would have been out.

Meantime, Oberer's pain intensified, turning her winces into tears.

Through them, she saw Oglevie approaching.

"It was a bomb. There was no way that she didn't deserve (the home run)," Oglevie said.

"As soon as she hit first base and her team couldn't help her anymore, she was just absolutely sobbing. She literally couldn't put one foot in front of the other. I was like, 'There's no way this girl isn't gonna make it home.' "

As second baseman Leah Pemberton approached, Oglevie wrapped Oberer's left arm around her shoulders. Following her pitcher's lead, Pemberton, a Bloomingdale High graduate, did the same with Oberer's right arm.

Except to gently touch second, third and home, Oberer's feet never touched the ground the rest of the way around.

"It was so heartfelt, because Chelsea is a senior pitcher," Oberer said. "I was pretty much her last batter and that was the last game of her college career. She didn't even think about it, she just reacted and helped me around the bases."

Coincidence accompanied the compassion. If this story sounds familiar, it should.

In a separate decade in a separate time zone, players from Central Washington created a viral ESPY moment by helping a seldom-used Western Oregon player around the bases after she injured her knee between first and second during a home-run trot.

Saturday was the six-year anniversary of that moment.

"What stood out, beyond the home run, was that they were willing to do it," Beauregard said. "It was purely instinct on the players' part, which makes it that much more heartfelt and genuine."