Editor's Note: The original
version of this blog was submitted for publication in Softball Magazine. It is reprinted here today in honor of
Northwestern's Senior Weekend, which begins at 2 p.m. CT Friday, May 11, 2012, against Illinois at Sharon J. Drysdale Field. The three member senior class will be honored prior to Saturday's 1 p.m. CT series finale.
soon as Adrienne Monka was old enough to attend preschool, her mother excitedly
dressed her up with a bow in her hair and sent her off.
At the end of the day, when she arrived to pick her daughter up, Elba Monka found that her preciously placed bow was gone from Adrienne's head and instead, lay in her cubby. When the preschooler explained that it had simply fallen off, her mother thought nothing of it and sent her back the next day with the bow firmly fastened atop her head. Come pick-up time, however, it was again found lying lonely in the cubby.
"She'd always say her little bow would fall off," says Elba. "After a while, I realized it was falling off every day."
Fast-forward 15 years. It's 2012 and Adrienne Monka still refuses to wear a bow.
In a sport dominated by sequined headbands and bedazzled ribbons, Adrienne is a two-time NFCA All-American who is defined by her bold passion and fearless deep love of the game. Uninterested in the hoopla and razzle-dazzle, she's made her mark on Division I softball in a unique fashion for the past four years. Because for Adrienne Monka, the game comes naturally. She plays with an intense devotion and respect of the sport, and her competitive drive is impressive. Hair accessories are just unnecessary.
Already this year, Monka has been named Big Ten Player of the Week twice and just last weekend hit her 54th career homerun to place herself third all-time at Northwestern. This Saturday, the first baseman will be honored along with classmates Olivia Zolke and Megan Lilley before the Wildcats' series finale against Illinois for Senior Day, stepping onto Sharon J. Drysdale field for the last time in her storied career.
Born This Way
Even at a young age, people took notice of Adrienne Monka. The Rancho Cucamonga, Calif. native started playing t-ball at age six--the only girl on a team of older boys--and was taken aback when her teammates complained about her presence on the team. So she did what any other six-year-old of her caliber would do. She walked up and tattooed a ball off the tee. A year later, Monka ran into a similar problem in the city's recreational softball league when a teammate's mother came up to her after practice and requested that Monka not throw the ball so hard to her daughter. She did not oblige.
As soon as she reached age 10, Monka's father, Dan, began coaching her travel ball team and would continue to do so until she turned 14. The two spent countless hours developing her foundation of skills and knowledge of the game; creating a meticulous work ethic that would become a key part of Monka's collegiate success.
"Adrienne would always practice because her dad taught her that you were only as good as what you put into your game," said Elba. "He taught her that she couldn't just practice on the field but off the field--on her own--because that's what was going to make her a better player and more valuable to her team."
In July of her junior year, Northwestern came knocking on the infielder's door, and it was love at first sight. On her first visit to Evanston, Monka knew right away that she wanted to be a Wildcat and would ultimately choose Northwestern over UCLA, Alabama and Washington.
After her freshman campaign, Monka was named an NFCA All-America first-team selection at first base and Big Ten Freshman of the Year, and was the only freshman to make the 12-member ESPN.com Softball All-America Team. To this day, she will tell you that her favorite Northwestern softball memory came that year when she and teammate Tammy Williams hit back-to-back home runs off back-to-back pitches in a 2-1 win over Michigan.
"Monka is smart. She pays attention. Her competitive drive is a force our team leans on and one that our opponents cannot ignore," said Northwestern Head Coach Kate Drohan. "For the last four years, I am guessing that every time an opponent has prepared for us, their first question has been, "How are we going to pitch to Monka?"
On April 4, 2009, Monka witnessed teammates Nicole Pauly and Erin Dyer unleash the second and third home runs in Northwestern history to land on the roof of the basketball arena adjacent to Sharon J. Drysdale Field. When Northwestern Coach Caryl Drohan told the freshman that not many people could become members of the elite 'Roof Club,' the slugger took this as a personal challenge.
"She called me and told me that she was going to hit the ball on the roof," said Elba. "I knew she was going to because she said she would."
Constantly in the cages taking extra cuts before and after practice, always on the field getting in more reps whenever possible; it was no coincidence when Adrienne Monka landed a spot in that club as a sophomore on April 14, 2010, and then became the first person to ever homer onto the roof twice in a career when she repeated the feat April 29, 2012. From the first day she stepped on campus, the first baseman took it upon herself to pick up the pen and write her own success with a tireless work ethic. It is one that inspires and challenges every team she is a part of.
Even her own nickname is a symbol of her confidence and determination. In 2009, when upperclassmen found out that Monka-- then a freshman-- was called "Love" by her mother, they immediately incorporated it into cheers. To this day, when Monka is up-to-bat, teammates form a heart with their hands and hold it above their heads to signal their desire for the kind of hit that shut up the boys on her t-ball team way back when. And more often than not, she delivers.
"Monka is a warrior. And it goes beyond her numbers. It is about how committed she is to the work within our game. She is one of the most consistent student-athletes I have ever coached and when you prepare like that, you have a great relationship with the game and your teammates," said Drohan.
In her last three seasons, Monka has started every game at first base for Northwestern and did not commit an error between May 8, 2009 and February 11, 2012; a string of 97 games and 622 chances. Last year she led the nation with a .707 on-base percentage and 1.53 walks per game; both numbers rank second all-time in NCAA Division I single-season history.
The numbers are impressive, but what doesn't show up in the statistics is the understated essence of Monka's leadership off the field.
"Monka always demonstrates a level of humility that I respect and admire," says former teammate Kelly Quinn. "She has an air of confidence in practice and games that radiates about her, but she is quiet about her incredible skills and accomplishments. Monka is a repeat All-American and All-Big Ten player, but she shows up to practice with the same focus every single day. She is quick to credit teammates and alums for their contributions to Northwestern softball, and is as proud as anyone I know to be a part of the history that our program has built--and is continuing to build--thanks to her efforts."
Ever since she was a sophomore, Monka has personally seen to it that each freshman class has as smooth a transition as possible. Whether it's offering rides to and from practice or taking them out to dinner so that they don't have to eat cafeteria food seven nights in a row, she makes herself readily available to the underclassmen and serves as a mentor in the level of competitiveness that is expected in Northwestern's program. She exudes the same kindness as a senior as she did as a sophomore, and places no value on the class system.
"As a freshman, you worry about things like, "Will the seniors like me? Is it going to be awkward? Am I going to make friends?" said current freshman Olivia Duehr. "Monka made it so much easier to play softball on this team and be myself."
Between chauffeuring freshmen and earning her degree in sociology, Monka is always the first to sign up for community outreach opportunities, whether it be sacrificing her time to run a 'softball day' for gym classes at a nearby elementary school or gathering and organizing canned food for a local shelter.
"Every day, Monka acts in selfless ways. Every action she takes is for the better of her family, her friends, her team or her school," said Quinn.
In fact, she does so much community service that even her own mother was surprised at how lengthy the list was. This past February, when Adrienne was nominated for the LOWE's Senior CLASS Award, Elba was floored when she read the press release and saw the extent of the activities her daughter has volunteered for and not mentioned.
"I think more than anything, she has amazing character. She's been my role model," said Elba. "Even when she was really young, she always did the best thing. She would never say anything mean about anybody and she always tried to do everything ethically."
A New Future
In March, Adrienne was drafted by National Pro Fastpitch's Chicago Bandits and will begin playing professionally once she graduates from Northwestern in June. She'll join Williams once again to play against the best of the best, a role that she will undoubtedly settle into easily.
"Playing professional sports is any athlete's dream and to have that opportunity is really special," said Adrienne. "I'm so lucky and excited to experience what being a professional is. I've heard nothing but good things about the Bandits. To be able to play with and against some of my best friends again at the highest level is really awesome."
To this day, Monka is still surprised when someone wants her autograph. The first baseman blushes a crimson pink, but that's what is so incredibly unique about her. It's humility and integrity that define her; passion and drive that fuel her.
"I am so proud of her every time I see other little girls go up to her because she was once that little girl," said Elba. "She loves that game, loves it with her whole soul. I can't even say her heart because she loves it with her whole soul."
Last year, when Monka was a junior, Northwestern team played a "pink" game against Penn State to support breast cancer awareness and excitedly put on new pink socks, pink wristbands and of course, pink ribbons. Much to their delight, a handful of teammates turned upon Monka and forcibly convinced her to tie one into her hair as well.
Three innings came and went at Penn State. Over at first base, the ribbon stuck out like a sore thumb in Monka's hair. She's never been one to try and make herself stand out in a crowd. For Adrienne Monka, that just comes naturally.
After getting three outs in the bottom of the fourth, the Wildcats ran off the field and poured into the dugout. It was then that one of Northwestern's underclassmen noticed that Monka's ribbon had disappeared.
"What happened to your bow?!" she exclaimed.
And true to form, Monka answered with a shrug:
"It just fell off."