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  • Matt Ondesko

Overcoming adversity

by Matthew Ondesko, Managing Editor

Injuries are part of the game.

They are the worse part of the game. An injured player can’t help the team during that time. They feel helpless as they are isolated, so to speak, from the rest of the squad as they rehab what is ailing them.

It can turn into a dark, and frustrating, place for the person who is going through the injuries. They want to be out there to help the team, but they know they can’t. They can just sit on the sidelines and cheer them on like everyone else.

It’s the competitive juices that get the athlete going. They want to be out there. They want to show everyone what they can do. Sometimes, it’s not even the injury that bothers a player so much.

It’s the mental side. The side that no one sees. Everyone can see the person rehabbing, and doing everything that is being asked of them. What they can’t see is the mental stress that it is taking on the athlete.

Nardin High School’s Julianna Verni has been through a lot during her short time as a softball player. Injuries have been a big part of her career - and not in a good way. Every time she feels she has bounced back from one - another injury pops up.

“Before Covid-19, I was very much looking forward to this summer and playing some great softball because I had just gone through one of the most mentally challenging years I’ve ever had,” explained Verni. “To explain, I missed last year’s travel and high school softball seasons due to some unfortunate injuries. In February 2019, I fractured my L5 vertebrae while pitching during a winter indoor game. I missed all of my Freshman high school season, however I did make the team and ended up going to every practice and every game to help out where I could. I did not return to full play (hitting and pitching) until the end of July. I was able to return with the help of some amazing coaches and trainers who helped me gain safe mechanics to keep my back healthy. I began working with John Opfer from Proformance Sports Training, who helped me improve my athleticism despite being physically limited. My coaches were also incredibly supportive throughout the whole process.”

The back injury was just the beginning of the injury woes for Verni. It seemed like every time she was able to battle back from one another would creep up. It was constant - and it was frustrating.

Over the past couple of years, Verni has battled a back, hyperextended my left knee, a sprained LCL, two bone bruises and fracture on the inside of her right ulna. Also, it gets worse, her dog passed away - and then COVID hit this spring.

You could say Verni has been through a lot, and she has. She could have also quit - and she hasn’t.

“Throughout COVID, I have worked to improve my velocity and continue practicing spin pitches. I run a lot and work out six days a week, most weeks. So, to say I was excited to play this summer is absolutely 100 percent true. We were able to travel out of state for a couple tournaments in June and July before travel was restricted in NY,” stated Verni. “Since then, we have attended three local tournaments and won two of them, being runners-up in the third. For the amount of time we had in lockdown, we played very well. It felt amazing to be able to get back out and perform in what I love doing. I think the best feeling was being able to leave the diamond after a game, covered in dirt, knowing that I was finally able to do my part on the mound and on the bases to help our team get some wins.”

Verni is very skilled at pitching, as we can see by her highlights. She also is a very skilled position player as well. While she maybe known for toeing the lab during games, Verni can also swing the stick - and had contributed big time with the bat.

Being able to play multiple positions is a great boon for any college coach that is looking to add a player like Verni to their roster. They know what they will get on the mound with her, but they also know she can spell some of her teammates in the field and not miss a beat.

“I feel great when being able to do both, but I’d say for me it’d have to be throwing a shutout. My main position is pitcher and that is what I work on most of the time. I do try to get hits to support our offense, but I know my primary responsibility is that of pitcher,” stated Verni. “Throwing a shutout provides me with great satisfaction, knowing that with the help of the defense behind me, we have prevented our opponents from scoring. But, hitting a couple bombs just helps add to that satisfaction. It’s great to know you can put up a hit from time to time.”

It’s pitching that will get her to the next level. Overcoming everything she has had to overcome could be tough for anyone - let a long a pitcher. Having back, and arm issues, like she has had in the past could be tough.

That’s not the type of mentality that Verni has though. It’s just like when she lets up a hit, or a home run, she bounces back to get the next batter out. It’s her mentality that separates her from the rest.

“Having a short memory in the game is really important for any player on the team. As a player, it’s good to be able to quickly shake off an error or misjudgment you might make. The ability to not overthink the error and move on to the next play quickly is a really great mental quality to have as an athlete. As a pitcher, I work on focusing on the batter and my catcher. Yes, I know how many outs and who is on base, but I believe concentrating on the batter keeps me focused on throwing strikes and doing my job. If I walk a girl, I try to move on and focus on the next player and on what I can do better. Also, picking up another player after they might’ve made an error is a great thing to do. Mentally, you can’t let one play determine your outlook on the rest of the game.,” stated Verni. “ Mentally: I also write two words on the inside of my glove so that I can look at them while on the mound to be able to remind myself of my thought process and use them as motivation.”

Being able to hit and pitch can sometimes give Verni an advantage on the mound. She is able to attack the hitters a certain way - knowing their weaknesses being a hitherto herself. She can come after them differently than she might if she wasn’t a hitter.

This all adds up to the studying of the opposition. Verni is a student of the game. She loves the game of softball, and takes the extra steps to be great at the sport - not just good.

“In my opinion, being a pitcher and a hitter gives you a great advantage in both positions. As a pitcher, when I am up to bat I am able to recognize the spin of the pitch coming at me. For example, If I see down-spin on a ball, I know I am looking at a drop ball and I will need to adjust my swing accordingly,” explained Verni. “If I see a rise spin or I see the release of the ball at the pitcher’s hip in a rise position, I can expect a rise ball. Additionally, I know that a pitcher’s goal is almost always to get ahead early in the count, usually meaning a first pitch strike. When I hit, if I see that first pitch fastball I know I need to swing and attack early in the count. On the mound, it’s the same way. I have to be strategic about where I place the ball because most hitters by now can hit a fastball. I know from experience that throwing off speed pitches can screw up a batter’s timing and rhythm.”

There is nothing better than pitching a shutout to help your team win, as Verni said. Hitting bombs has a pretty good felling too. There is nothing better for a hitter than driving in runs and heeling her team win that way.

Generating power, and beat speed, is important when you are trying to launch the ball over the fence. Verni has been able to generate that bat speed this summer - as she had hit a few bombs to help her team win.

“Getting power for hitting and pitching for that matter starts with your legs and hips. I go to training where I focus on being explosive out of my legs. Also, I do drills to work on getting as much power as I can through the ball. If you have a strong base and get to a good contact and extension point with the ball, it's hard to stop it from going pretty far,” stated Verni. “I work on timing in practices and getting to a good contact point. My swing begins with separation between my hips and upper body and loading with as much power as I can to then release that power through the ball through my swing.”

She also works on begin a complete player. That means putting in the extra time in the field to make sure she doesn’t let the team down that way. You can say that Verni is a complete player all-around when she is healthy - which she is right not.

Getting the extra fielding in before the game, and during practice, allows her to be comfortable when being called upon to play an outfield position or at first bade.

“At team practices, I do not normally pitch, so I’ll go outfield or 1st base depending on where my coaches need me for that day. When I’m not pitching, I really love to play the outfield,” stated Verni. “I love diving for balls and making awesome plays, If needed, I play first base as well. In practice, our first baseman Kennedy Cotton and I are normally at first as the rest of the girls field their own position and refine skills. We work on getting balls out of the dirt and blocking wild throws. I also love working on pickoff plays at first base and then the team getting to do them successfully in games - It’s pretty cool to watch.”

It would have been easy for Julianna Verni just too give up a year or so ago. With all the injuries that happened in a shirt amount of time, any player would have said that’s enough.

Not her, not now.

She loves the sport, and the sport loves her. Julianna Verni has just scratched the surface of how good she can be, and the rest of us are getting a glimpse.


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