From playing the field … … to greener pastures!
by Matthew Ondesko: Managing Editor
It’s another peaceful day on the course. The trees are starting to change colors, there is a fall chill in the air. The grass is that nice color green, not the burnt color from the hot days during the summer.
There is just something about being on the golf course when the calendar changes to September. There is a different feel. The weather is a little bit cooler, the golf ball flies a little bit better.
It’s quite the change from putting on the cleats and stepping on the infield for softball fall ball practice. Not that there is anything wrong with getting a little dirty in the fall. The atmosphere is just different. The feel is just different.
Golf in the fall, at the college level, is still competitive. Tournaments over those couple of months will get you ready for competition in the spring. Softball in the fall is to really work on fundamentals, and give the incoming freshmen a chance to get acclimated with their new teammates. It’s just a different feel.
Niagara University golfer Kassidy Aiken is used to both. Before she started swinging a club with the Purple Eagles, Aiken was swinging a bat for the University at Buffalo softball team. Softball is something that came natural for Aiken. She was a standout for West Seneca East High School, earning All-ECIC 2016, 2017 and 2018.
Her path, so she thought, was softball. It’s all Aiken has ever done since she was a child. The sport has been ingrained in her mind since she could always remember. But, sometimes what you think you are supposed to do, and what you end up doing are two different things.
See, Aiken was a softball player. Going to UB to play at the Division I level was what she was supposed to do. It was written in the stars. Then is wasn’t. College softball was different. There were factors, like the coach leaving, that changed how Aiken viewed the sport she loved growing up.
But, there was just something else that was going on. Aiken really couldn’t put her finger on it until Covid hit. Covid has been a game changer when it comes to how student-athletes view life. Before it was kind of just sign your letter, go to college, play the sport you signed for - and deal with everything that comes along with it.
When Covid hit, student-athletes sat back and started to think more about themselves - not in a selfish way, but in a good way. They started to take into consideration the mental aspect of everything that is going on around them. They stopped being robots - and started being humans again.
For Aiken there was a stress level both mentality and physically going on while she was at the University at Buffalo. She just wasn’t the same person she was while at West Seneca East. The love of the game just wasn’t at the same level it was before she entered UB.
She knew that she needed to make a change for herself. Change isn’t a bad thing. Change shouldn’t be looked upon as failing at something. Sometimes, change is necessary to get back to the person that you used to be.
“I don’t know if I ever would’ve left UB, or if I would’ve transferred somewhere else,” stated Aiken by phone recently. “Covid really game me the opportunity to reflect on what I was experiencing at UB both mentally and physically. Then to get the opportunity to play golf kind of just all fell into place at the right time.”
Aiken, looking for something to do during the Covid summer, Aiken started going out with her mom to hit golf balls. There she started to have fun again, fall in love with sports again. You could see the smile back on her face.
Golf has allowed her to take control of her life. Do things on her terms. The sport has allowed her to once again take control of her future. Where softball is a big team sport, golf is all about how you go out there and tackle the course. You are in control of your score - and how you go up and down the greens.
“It was nice to get to take control of my future,” stated Aiken. “And, to play a sport where the only influence on my performance is me.”
Aiken isn’t just a number on the roster at Niagara. She is a legit Division I golfer. She is one of their starters, and has performer extremely well at tournaments over the past couple seasons. She takes her game seriously. This isn’t just a hobby for her. She wants to go out there and compete with the very best every single tournament, and match.
“At first when I joined the team I walk like “Oh yeah I’m just going to be here, my name will be on the roster,” stated Aiken. “I never thought I would be able to compete, especially being considered in the top five. I never anticipated this falling in to my lap, and turning out as great as it did. It kind of makes me think there is a higher power somewhere that lined up everything the way that it did.”
What even makes this story more remarkable is that this year Aiken was named captain of the team. Think about the timeline for a second, Aiken when from UB softball, to burnt out softball player, to Niagara golf to now captain of the team.
To say her career has had some ups and downs, twists and turns is an understatement. It also shows the type of person she is. She could have daily given up after her softball career kind of burned out at UB.
Aiken could have easily just continued her academic career, graduated and the next chapter of her life. But, instead, she looked at herself in the mirror and moved on. She is a great example to the rest of the players on this team.
She knows what some of these girls are going through. She’s been there, she’s done that. And she is a stronger person for it. For her to be named captain was a huge accomplishment - and something that she doesn’t take for grand it.
“When I was named captain it was something that I never anticipated,” stated Aiken. “It was such a great honor, and I definitely wear it with pride. Not everyone gets to be named a captain, especially coming from the situation that I was in at the University at Buffalo. It gives the opportunity to help lead my team to evolve our program and better it. To have the opportunity to do that has been insane. I am just grateful that I have been named captain, and that I get to wear it with pride.”
The game of golf has given Aiken an outlet, I guess you could say. Maybe the expectations were too high for her when she stepped on the softball diamond. She was a standout on the diamond - and people expect that kind of level of play all the time.
On the gold course there are no expectations - except from herself. Aiken is competitive. You have to be if you are playing at the highest collegiate level. But, there is something about that game that gets her in the right frame of mind.
If she is having a bad day - and needs to get away - Aiken goes out to the driving range and hits a bucket of balls. It’s her way of getting away from things - getting herself back into the right frame of mind, again.
“Golf has kind of turned into my great outlet, It has allowed me to regain my confidence,” stated Aiken. “It kind of gave me something to focus on outside of softball. Golf gave me the opportunity to work toward something else that wasn’t softball. So for me, golf was kind of like my savior. It was my way out of a tough situation. If I am having a bad day, I might go to the driving range and focus on golf, instead of focusing on what happen that day.”
The game has allowed her to love softball again. She probably won’t admit it, but there was a time there where she hated the game. Why else would you stop playing, and not just transfer to another school to play the same sport.
Golf has allowed her to step away from the daily grind of having all that pressure - to more of just enjoying it again. Aiken has gotten into coaching softball, and playing again over the summer. The joy is back when she steps on the diamond - unless she goes 0-fer, then she might not be having so much fun.
“I think everything happens for a reason, and certain things are timed. I have that opportunity to play summer ball still. I coach a travel softball team. I coach a high school team. Just having the opportunity to still be around the game has been awesome. Especially being able to support the Purple Eagles softball team has been awesome, and to still be around the sport that I love so much.”
Aiken is one of the lucky ones. There are a lot of student-athletes who have a bad experience somewhere and they just don’t know how to handle it. A lot of athletes will just stick it out thinking that’s how it is supposed to be, without really diving into the cause for why they are unhappy.
For Aiken, she was able to put the pieces of the puzzle together. Everything just happened to fall place. Her future is extremely bright, and just on the links or the diamond. Aiken will tackle life outside of sports, just like she is now.
And, that’s a great accomplishment.
“I have been very fortunate to have all the pieces of my puzzle fall into play,” stated Aiken. “Where and when they did.”