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
"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
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.