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Softball ace travels daunting road to recovery from Tommy John surgery

The procedure is not seen often with softball pitchers, but Palm Harbor University’s Savanna Bennett perseveres even when plagued by doubts.
Palm Harbor University ace Savanna Bennett had to limit her mound appearances for the bulk of this season as she worked her way back from Tommy John surgery. (SCOTT PURKS | Special to the Times)
Published Apr. 22

PALM HARBOR — Savanna Bennett’s arm troubles began after a fitful night of sleep more than a year ago.

The Palm Harbor University ace knew something was wrong at practice. She hurled a softball overhand that traveled 6 feet.

“I was throwing as hard as possible, too” Bennett said.

The velocity remained when she threw underhanded. So Bennett kept pitching.

The results, though, were inconsistent.

“Some games Savanna was great; others she was not,” coach Kerry Katchuk said. “We were all scratching our heads to figure out why.”

Maybe she hyperextended her right elbow while sleeping. Maybe it was just sore.

Bennett finally had enough.

In July, she went to Koco Eaton, the orthopedic surgeon for the Rays. The news was not good: a damaged ulnar collateral ligament.

Bennett needed Tommy John surgery, named after the former New York Yankees pitcher who was the first to undergo the procedure that has become commonplace in baseball.

“I played on it torn for months so I got somewhat used to the pain,” Bennett said. “When I went to the doctor I was shocked.”

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Bennett became part of a scarred sorority few in her sport join. Of the more than 1,000 Tommy John surgeries Eaton performed the past two decades, only about a dozen were on softball players.

“I’ve had more gymnasts go through Tommy John surgery than softball players,” Eaton said.

Most of those were on infielders who throw overhand, a motion that puts more strain on the elbow. Eaton recalls about one or two other softball pitchers who needed the surgery.

“It’s so rare because it’s a natural motion with the elbow so close to the body,” he said.

Instead of complete reconstruction, Eaton opted for a new procedure in which he attached the ligament to the bone.

The surgery left more than a scar. It also temporarily took away the game Bennett loves more than anything else.

With her right arm immobilized for months, Bennett learned to do everything left-handed. The recovery also clouded her future. She already had a scholarship to play at Pasco-Hernando State College. Now that was in jeopardy.

And Bennett, a senior, had to go through the grueling stages of rehabilitation — alone.

“It was hard,” she said. “I’m wearing this brace and having everyone ask what’s going on. There really was no female to turn to for advice because I was the only one really going through this.”

Bennett went to Larry Mayol, a former trainer with the New York Mets who has more than 40 years of experience.

Under Mayol’s guidance, Bennett worked on rebuilding the strength in her shoulder and elbow.

She also had to gain confidence.

“One of the first questions pitchers have after the surgery is, ‘Will I ever throw again,’” Mayol said. “Once they can throw, they want to know if it will hurt because the body remembers the last throw you made.”

At one point, Bennett thought about quitting.

“There was probably a four-day span where everything just felt like it wasn’t working and I wasn’t getting better,” Bennett said. “Then I realized I couldn’t see myself without softball so I changed my mindset positively.”

In January, Bennett started hitting again. A month later, she resumed throwing.

“That was emotional, picking up a softball again,” said Bennett, whose Hurricanes (17-6) are the No. 2 seed in the Class 9A, District 8 tournament that starts next week. “I cried quite a bit.”

The process took time. Bennett had a limited pitch count, even in warmups. Last month, she took the mound for the first time in eight months.

Now there are no more restrictions.

Her softball exile finally is over. And those college plans are still intact. Pasco-Hernando stuck by her.

“Some things will never be the same,” Bennett said. “I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to throw as well overhand again. And I’m slowly trusting myself and my ability to throw. There are good days and bad days. But everything is working out just fine.”

Contact Bob Putnam at bputnam@tampabay.com. Follow @BobbyHomeTeam.

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