It has been 18 years since I missed an opening day, which totals 10 years of little league, four years of high school and four more years playing Division 1 softball at Seton Hall University. Now there is a deafening quiet in my life as all the cheering has stopped.
I was one of a very few Dad’s whose daughter played a DIVISION 1 sport. It is a very exclusive club. Sara was a born a natural. She was gifted with an athleticism that was obvious when I first noticed the way she positioned her body while digging sand from a hole at the beach. She had perfect angles and possessed a precise rhythm, driven by her effortless determination. She had an inherent strength and natural fluidity both in sync with time and motion. Her field perception was as effortless and precise as a prima ballerina, always with a smile.
In the blink of an eye, the time came when she would no longer compete on an athletic field, as a player ever again. The window closed too quickly. After the final out, came the final walk to the bus, then the final plane ride home, then cleaning out the locker for good. I am not sure she was able to comprehend what was happening. As her father, I am afraid the memories from those fields of dreams she let me share were rushing by at light speed, not willing to let go. I thought I had prepared myself for the day it would end. I suppose I should have been grateful that I got four more years. It was four more then 90% of parents whose kids play a sport in high school and she was a starter in college for four years, not a bench sitter! However, the prolonging of the inevitable may have made it harder having witnessed her constant pursuit of the perfect swing or throw! I knew it was a hurt inside the both of us that neither would be able to heal anytime soon.
Sara ran the table from town recreational softball to becoming the only Montclair High School graduate to ever receive a scholarship for a D1 college softball program. She started every game in centerfield since she was a freshman in high school. She broke and holds every hitting record in the history of MHS softball. She is the only player in the high school to have hit for the cycle and she did it twice! She hit lead off, yet led the team every year in RBI’s, HR’s and every other offensive category that there was. She was “all-everything “ in both soccer and softball.
She was a recruited scholarship soccer player for the Seton Hall Pirates, but in the summer before her freshman year, she came to me and said that she just couldn’t play soccer. She lost the passion and instead chose to become a freshman softball walk-on, having never played a minute of “club softball” in her life. It is very rare that a D1 walk on makes the team much less an athlete who played softball only three months of the year. There was not a player on her team or any other player that she faced over four years of college ball, who could lay claim to that distinction. She hit home runs against Notre Dame, Arizona State, Louisville, DePaul, San Diego State, Syracuse, UCONN, Pittsburgh, UNLV, USF, University of Arizona, Maryland and many more major softball powers. Sara was also a four year Big East Academic All-Star and Big East Player of the Week on nine different occasions. She is well covered in the SHU and Big East record books, including most home runs in one game with three. She also had more multi-hit games then anyone who ever played at Seton Hall.
Perhaps the most thrilling moment of her career and mine as well, being her number one fan, came in the last inning of the final game of her sophomore season. I was sitting in the outfield grass at Georgetown University along with other player parents. Whoever won this game was going to the Big East Tournament in Florida. Sara was coming up to bat. I was so nervous that I moved from right field to left field to be by myself. What happened next has been recognized as one of the top 5 most dramatic moments in SHU sports history. With two outs in the bottom of the 7th, one runner on base, she drove a ball, right over my head to left field, clearing the fence by fifteen yards! Surely she knew I was standing there! That HR sent SHU to the Big East Tournament for the first time in ten years. The teams in the Big East that year included four top twenty teams in the nation including, Notre Dame, Louisville, DePaul and USF.
In her senior year Sara led her team back to the Big East Tournament, this time in Chicago. Against the odds, she led the Pirates into the finals for the first time since 2004. During her senior year she ended up in the top five for most offensive categories including RBI’s, doubles and OBP. Again, the tournament bid was decided on the last weekend of the season. It was the final regular season game and she went two for three with 2 RBI’s. The team won by two runs. And then, the next weekend at Rosemont Field in Chicago Illinois, the umpire called the final out of the Big East Championship game and everything in my head went silent and turned to slow motion.
My throat went dry. The floodgates opened. There were no more plane reservations to make, no hotel coordination with team parents, no pre-season excitement with high hopes for a championship year! No more thinking that this would be the one that the remake of “A League Of Their Own” would be based on. How could it not be, Sara made me watch that movie hundreds of times from 3rd grade, right through college.
Sara Mary Haefeli gave me more then she will ever know. She gave me the gift of watching her play in the Big Leagues! When the cheering stopped and the uniform came off, it was not just her season ending; it was the end of an era. She had grown out of her uniform and the dream was over but it had been lived. It had been lived to the fullest.
I was fortunate to have watched her play the game she loved and I loved watching her more then the game itself. I loved her passion, I loved her dedication, I loved her work ethic, and I loved her. She, who taught me so much by example.
Sara has taken away more from Seton Hall then just memories of her athletic exploits. Most importantly she took away a Dean’s List Academic career with a double major in Business and Sports Management with a minor in English. She has also taken her LSAT’s for law school admissions. For these accomplishments I am most proud of.
She also takes away valuable life lessons of how to win and how to lose, how to work hard for what you want and how to respond when you don’t get it. She learned how to get along with others by being a member of a team and I learned how to love her and the young lady she has become. I am proud to be her Dad.
Sara is back at Montclair High School as the Assistant Varsity Head Coach and this Friday will be back at Seton Hall University Softball Field as well. It is no coincidence that this year’s MHS team is the first since Sara graduated, to have won a single play off game. This Friday, 7pm at Seton Hall University softball field, MHS softball is back in the hunt as they face Livingston in the Essex County Tournament Semi-Finals.