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    A Tribute to Our 2011 Senior Class

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    This was it. The interview I'd been dreading to facilitate for weeks now.

     

    I trudge up the stairs with a disheartened defiance, crossing the hallway to punch the security code into the keypad of the locker room door. My eyes glisten with tears as I step inside the locker room, dozens of memories from the past two years flashing across my memory and dancing in front of my face as I flip on the light switch.

     

    An incoming text tells me they'll be arriving shortly. I had told them to meet me here -- our team's own private sanctuary of laughs, sweat, and tears-- the place where it all begins. I pass each of their lockers as I circle the room; #7... #8... #10... #18... #23. I can still remember that windy April day in 2008 when I met the five of them in this very room for the first time on my unofficial recruiting visit. They had busted through that locker room door, joking loudly about all sorts of nonsense and laughing the full-bellied kind of laughs that result from deep friendships. Noticing me in the corner, they had come straight over and treated me like an old friend, convincing me right then that there was no other college softball team I'd rather play for than theirs.

     

    My thoughts are interrupted as I hear the keypad click again. The door opens and the five of them enter in much of the same way as they did three years ago, exuberant and animated. As they gather around me -- the déjà vu uncanny -- I can't help but realize in the pit of my stomach that it has come time to say good-bye.

     

    "Let's start at the beginning," I say, "Tell me about your freshman year. What was your first impression of each other?"

     

    Kelly Quinn smiles as Michelle Batts looks to Robin Thompson with a sly grin. "Wait, this is a group interview?" Jordan Wheeler exclaims as Jessica Smith giggles uncontrollably.

     

    Their antics continue for a few more seconds. Typical for these five. Always joking, always laughing, always the life of the party. And yet at the same time, always willing to get down to business when necessary. I secretly begin to hope they realize this is that time, just as Wheeler takes the lead.

     

    "We all had a lot in common," she reminisces. "Our backgrounds -- even though they were super different -- [were similar in] the way our brains worked and the way that we cared about each other immediately. There was a lot of compassion right off the bat; everybody was looking out for each other right off the bat even though we

    had only known each other for a couple weeks."

     

    The group came to Northwestern from various parts of the country: Smith and Wheeler from southern California, Batts and Quinn from the Chicagoland area, and Thompson from Detroit, Mich. All standouts in their respective high school softball programs, they each had been drawn to the family atmosphere embedded into

    Northwestern Softball.

     

    "It was an environment where I felt welcome, and I loved everything about it," says Thompson as the others nod. "I felt like I could be me here. I felt like I wouldn't miss my family as much because there was that type of environment here. And it proved to be true."

     

    All five faces light up when I ask them what they'll remember most about their four years in that purple uniform.

     

    "Water balloon fights," says Batts, sending chuckles throughout the room.

     

    "Winning the Big Ten Championship," asserts Thompson, inciting an electric commotion throughout the room as the other four are quick to agree.

     

    "It was amazing knowing that all five of us were a part of that. Nobody was on the bench -- we were all in there," says Thompson.

     

    "We were all factors in that championship," agrees Batts.

     

    You can sense that the 2008 win over Michigan State that clinched the regular-season Big Ten title is still as real to them in this moment as it was two years ago. They're all talking at the same time -- lost in their own memories of that day -- each trying to express the sheer enormity of what they felt during that experience.

     

    "It was that good kind of pressure that's the reason you play sports," recalls Wheeler. "It was that fire in your belly that made you so nervous, but made you ready for anything."

     

    The moment quiets down, and I move forward with another question, one that I'm most curious to know and hear.

     

    "So, what have you learned from each other?" I ask. "What have these four other people taught you?"

     

    They pause -- contemplative -- but only for a moment.

     

    "I've learned to be a free spirit," says Thompson. "I'm a laid back type of person in general and I'm really to myself, but I've accepted something else and I love it."

     

    "I've learned how to work through the hardest times and still have friends at the end," says Batts, the others nodding in agreement, their eyes locked in a bond of friendship that has stood the test of time.

     

    "I've learned how to appreciate everybody's unique differences in a way that's more than just appreciating them but learning how to love them for it," affirms Wheeler as Quinn chimes in with: 'The level of confidence individually in each of them and the different ways that it is presented to create this outward personality of everyone is inspiring," she says.

     

    "I think I came in here naturally a very closed-off person, and I think that I've learned how to open up and be able to trust," ends Smith.

     

    As they each open up about the lessons they've taken from each other, I take a moment to sit back and gaze at the five faces in the circle before me, wondering if they'll ever know the impact they've not only had on each other, but on the rest of us as well. All five are so incredibly unique, yet are the same in the thousands of ways

    they've left their marks all over this program, this team and myself.

     

    To my right sits Kelly Quinn, without a doubt one of the most intelligent women I've come across. I cannot wait to see where life takes K-Q, whether it be engineering the next world-changing substance or baking more of her already famous pastries. Defined by dedication and consistency, Quinnie has represented Northwestern Softball both on and off the field with dignity and reliability.

     

    To her right is Jessica Smith. Our leader in the circle and one of the most determined women I know, Boots is easily one of the hardest working members of our team and leaves no doubt that she will control her own destiny. I will be forever grateful for the accountability we shared; that I would do anything for her as my pitcher and vice versa, both of us relying on a belief we had in each other that I could feel from way out in centerfield.

     

    Next to her is Robin Thompson, the fiercest competitor I've ever played the game

    with and our team's anchor at third base for the past four years. She's a natural-born leader with a quiet confidence and a compassion for others, the combination of which is extraordinary. Which, to be completely honest, is the only word that can even come close to justly describing RT. She has been and always will be one of my role models, my 'other half' and a woman I hold in the highest esteem.

     

    Next is Michelle Batts, one of my best friends and the glue to this 2011 team. An offensive threat whenever she steps in the box, Shelly creates an electric buzz throughout stadiums like nothing I've felt before; fans know as well as we do what one swing of her bat can mean. The life of the party, Michelle has the biggest heart of anyone I know and is as loyal as they come. She is the epitome of selfless, the definition of kindness. When I think of my top 10 moments of college thus far, Michelle has been the cause or been a part of every one of them.

     

    And finally, to my left is Jordan Wheeler. Truly the best defensive player I've ever played with, I literally cannot imagine a team without her on it, an outfield where she doesn't exist. When I think about that last inning at Penn State -- the last time I will ever be able to look to left field and find her next to me -- it feels as though someone is chopping my right arm off. Jo is a woman of confidence that has taught me to go after what I desire with fearless determination, a life-lover who has shown me what it means to live with no regrets.

     

    I'm jerked back into reality to ask them one final question -- what they'll miss most about each other. The room gets quiet and Wheeler delivers an answer that strikes a chord for the entire group.

     

    "I think I'm going to realize it when I'm gone, just how much I took happiness for granted, and how it easy it always was to get it from these four," she says.

     

    Her answer makes me realize just how grateful I am for the two years I had the opportunity to have with these five women. The happiness that Wheeler treasures is something that they've inadvertently spread to everyone in this program, and the thought of not having them here next year is surreal. In fact, it's almost unfathomable.

     

    Because the routine I've known for two years will be forever changed as soon I set foot on campus next year. Their laughter won't be there upon entering the locker room, and I won't be able to find them as I look down the dugout. I don't want to think about what life will be like without a Michelle Batts' embrace to run to or a pep talk from Robin Thompson to get me through the day. What is it going to feel like when I can't lock eyes with Jordan Wheeler from across the field to know that everything's going to be OK, or when I can't look to Jessica Smith's and Kelly Quinn's quiet determination to remind me to press on?

     

    And even as much as it hurts to lose them, as much as their departure leaves a gaping hole, I know we'll be fine -- I'll be fine -- because of everything they're leaving us with. They've taught each and every one of us what it means to be determined and confident, they've shown us all how to chase after your dreams with uninhibited

    abandon.

     

    So to the five women who have molded and shaped my life for the past two years, here's to you.

     

    Here's to your legacy, to everything you've left behind. Here's to the game-winning grand slams, the inning-ending diving catches, the strikeout pitches that made us all pump our fists. Here's to your work ethic that has inspired all of us every day, and to your families that have welcomed so many of us in with arms of love when our own couldn't be present.

     

    Here's to the Friday night hang-outs at the house, the Saturday afternoon victories and the Sunday night dinners. Here's to your light-hearted laughter -- a staple that has brought smiles to countless numbers of faces -- and to the definition of Northwestern Softball that you've helped shape along the way. I can't wait to see where life takes you in these next few years, or rather, where you will take life.

     

    Slowly but surely, I get up from my spot on the floor of the locker room and gather my things. As they begin to leave one-by-one, I realize that their Northwestern Softball experience will come full circle in a few months, when they'll be scattered across the nation like they once were before their time here began.

     

    But as I turn off the lights and walk down the stairs, it dawns on me that perhaps it would be inaccurate to say their journey has come full circle. The impact they've had on this program is far too great to say it ends here. Their circle is more of a spiral, continuing to wind in and out of all the lives they've touched here in Evanston

    and extending towards all of the possibilities they've made us believe are possible. They've embedded themselves in every nook and cranny of this program, spiraling through their four years here and many to come.

     

    So thank you, seniors, for everything you've given to this program, for everything you've given to me. Each of you have been an inspiration both on and off the field, reminding us every day of the reasons why we came to Northwestern, of why we play this game. You've led this team with grace, poise and confidence; teaching me and preparing me every day for this moment, when it has become my turn to step up and be the leader you have been to me.

    Fitz Is Ours, And He Is Here To Stay

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    Pat Fitzgerald is staying at Northwestern.

     

    Among rumors of job offers elsewhere, the head football coach announced Tuesday that a newly agreed upon contract extension will keep him here for not one, not two, but 10 years.

     

    Thank goodness.

     

    This is more than us just keeping the man who has led Northwestern to three-consecutive bowl games for the first time in team history. It's more than the fact Fitzgerald is a two-time Bronko Nagurski and Chuck Bednarik Award winner, a 2008 College Football Hall of Fame inductee and, most recently, the inaugural recipient of the 1WORLD Sports Coach of the Year award.

     

    Pat Fitzgerald has become much more than just the head football coach.

     

    He is the heartbeat of this university.

     

    The man has established himself as the face of Northwestern sports, defining what it means to truly bleed purple, and legions of fans have followed behind him. Everywhere you go on campus -- even in the offseason -- you'll find students wearing "Fitz is my Facebook friend" t-shirts. Walk through any dorm and you'll find popsicle sticks with his face taped onto them; wall art in spring, football game props in the fall. His posts on Twitter are read religiously by athletes, fans and alumni alike, and the videos he uploads onto his Facebook are 'liked' by the dozen.

     

    He and his players have reached out to Evanston and the surrounding communities in dozens of ways. Always a proponent of the university's academic excellence, his players achieved their highest GPA in team history last quarter with a 3.02 mark. And most recently, he was a judge at the first ever Student-Athlete Talent Show. It's the little things he does that have allowed the students of this university to claim him as their own. And now, it's going to stay that way until 2020.

     

    As a student here, I've witnessed the Fitz frenzy that has taken over the school. As an athlete, I've experienced his charisma first-hand. To see Fitz in and around the stadium facilities -- always greeting us with a warm hello -- and to constantly find him cheering loudly at our games down the left field line has been a priceless part of my experience here at Northwestern. Even finding his online congratulations over Facebook and Twitter to fellow Northwestern teams is a small gesture that has spoken volumes.

     

    His players rave about his likeability and charm. Their respect for him is through the roof, and they sing praises of his annual Thanksgiving invites into his home.

     

    To the outside world, Pat Fitzgerald is the coach who has led Northwestern to three-consecutive bowl games, the man who, earlier this year, was named a finalist for the inaugural Joseph V. Paterno Coach of the Year Award.

     

    But to the students of Northwestern, he is ours.

     

    He's the common link between the saxophonist and the basketball player, the engineer and the journalist.

     

    He's the figure we search for on the Ryan Field sidelines from the stands, the voice we would recognize from a mile away.

     

    He's the coach we've rallied around come fall, and the family man we've come to know and love in spring.

     

    And he's here to stay.

    Northwestern University's Student Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC) hosted the school's first ever Student-Athlete Talent Show Tuesday night, May 3, showcasing off-the-field talents of athletes across six sports. Over 250 students and members of the Evanston community attended the event, and all proceeds went to support the Kathryn Mahoney Fund. A senior gymnast at Michigan State, Mahoney fractured her C6 vertebra in a practice accident in December 2010 and currently is continuing her rehabilitation at home in Western Springs, Ill.

     

    Hosted by senior softball player Michelle Batts and junior soccer player Christian Ludke, the show was set up American-Idol style, with a panel of judges that included head football coach Pat Fitzgerald, strength and conditioning coach Jay Hooten, Dean of Students Burgell Howard, and Manager of Business Development Amy Potter.

     

    Let's Get Down To Business

    The night began with senior field hockey player Katie Lynch and Andrew Bouverette, who weren't messing around with their rendition of Lynch's original song, "Someone to Come Home To." While Bouverette set the mood with a pair of macaranas, Lynch played acoustic guitar; the pair's beautiful harmonies meshed perfectly to complete an understated yet whimsical folk vibe.

     

    Going the Extra Mile

    Next up was senior cross country runner Madeline Rozwat and her friend Douglas Husking, a member of NU's own acapella group -- Freshman Fifteen. The pair sang a lovely rendition of "I Run To You" by Lady Antebellum, completely with on-stage chemistry and bubbly energy. The judges, however, said they wanted more "pizzazz."

     

    Arabian Nights

    Talk about a showstopper. The third act of the night featured junior soccer player John Rogers and sophomore lacrosse player Beatrice Conley. Decked out in white harem pants, a purple vest, and a red solo cup atop his head, Rogers began by painfully belting out the first verse of "A Whole New World" from Aladdin. Let's just say, Roger's better hope to find a magic lamp if he wishes to continue his singing career. The act was saved when Conley emerged as Jasmine -- with a voice fit for a Disney princess -- and the two began a duet of comedic Jekyll meets Hyde proportions.

     

    Teach Me How to Dougie?

    The show was then interrupted by a surprise act from junior soccer player Peter O'Neal, junior footballer Bo Cisek and academic advisor Davon Robb. While O'Neal attempted to serenade Judge Amy Potter with a sappy rendition of "My Girl" and Cisek rolled up his sleeves (to reveal his tattoo much to the chagrin of Judge Fitzgerald) and read Fitz's favorite song- Livin' On A Prayer- in poetic form, Robb tried to play bass decked out in a purple wig. The three were quickly interrupted by emcee Michelle Batts, who attempted to "teach" them the art of a good talent show act by pulling teammate Robin Thompson out of the audience for a 'Dougie' tutorial.

     

    2/5 of a Great Act

    Act five featured sophomore Jake Gregus and another member of his five-man band, The Have-Naughts. The duo performed their own original song, "Rising Sun," a mix of folk and rock musical genius, and the act was highlighted by a guitar solo in Judge Fitz's face! Duly noted is the fact that Gregus managed to get on stage with a casted broken foot and still rock out!

     

    Me, Myself, and I

    Next up was yours truly, Kristin Scharkey, with an acoustic cover of "Need" by Tyrone Wells. The performance was the second time I've played in front of an audience; my first being an open mic night at the Brothers K Coffee House last April. On both occasions, Batts has taken on the role of 'manager' in encouraging a singer who's usually too afraid to get in front of a crowd to do the shows. It was a privilege to play in honor of Kathryn Mahoney last night; she is truly the epitome of courage and an inspirational athlete.

     

    Click It Or Ticket

    The night ended when student-athletes turned Youtube sensations Pat Gibson and Michael Bolden staged a live performance of their viral music video, "The Seatbelt Dance." Although Coach Fitz had warned at the start of the show that he would walk out if he heard an utterance of  "seatbelts," he ended up staying to be highly entertained by Gibson and Bolden's antics. As they pranced and danced around stage, the duo closed the show with plenty of laughs and cheers from the audience.

     

    To see what all the fuss was about, check out "The Seatbelt Dance" on Youtube.

     

    Give My Regards to Broadway

    After the judge's scores had been tallied (and Hooten was through channeling his inner Simon Cowell), the winner of SAAC's Student-Athlete Talent Show 2011 was revealed to be a certain centerfielder with a blog called ScharkBytes.

     

    The highlight of my night, however, was having the opportunity to meet Mahoney, an athlete whom I have the deepest amount of respect for. Whenever I had started to get nervous before performing, I'd simply look out to the first row of the audience and find her gentle smile. I know I speak for all of my fellow NU student-athletes when I say that she is an inspiration, and I can think of no one better to honor than Mahoney with this show.

     

    Editor's Note From Scharkey: If you would like to make an additional donation to Kathryn's fund, donations can be sent directly to the credit union at Michigan State Federal Credit Union, 3777 West Road, PO Box 1208, East Lansing, MI, 48826 or to Kathie Klages at 312 Jenison Field House, East Lansing, MI 48824-1025. Checks can be made out to the "Kathryn Mahoney Fund." The account number is 398385-05; however, that doesn't have to be on the check. People can also call 517-333-2424 and make a deposit via virtual check at no cost. Thank you for your continued support of Kathryn!