Faith Cain said goodbye, hung up the phone and burst into tears. She was home alone, sitting on the couch watching television when Nebraska head coach Rhonda Revelle called that weekday afternoon in November 2013. Cain had been committed to the Cornhuskers for three years, but the once-dominant pitcher faltered late in her high school career. Still, she never thought it would cost her a spot on the Cornhuskers’ roster.
“I held back the tears on the phone,” Cain said. “I was devastated.”
Just three years earlier, Cain had been one of the most dominant pitchers in the state of Nebraska. Yet suddenly, she became the victim of an inescapable mental block called the yips. Her struggle with it has shaped the last seven years. It has lost her a scholarship twice, brought her to a school she never expected to attend and forced her to give up on one dream to pursue another at Syracuse.
Cain now strictly plays first base and bats as a designated hitter. This year with the Orange (30-18, 10-10 Atlantic Coast), her first in Division I, the junior is hitting .291 and ranks second on the team in home runs (five) and RBIs (39), and third in doubles (nine). But all of the success now comes outside the circle in which she made her name.
“I was good,” Cain said of her pitching. “I could shut down anyone I want.”
As a 14-year-old freshman at Millard West High School in Nebraska, Cain threw a 65-mph drop ball, about the speed of a Division-I pitcher. Her 0.18 earned run average her freshman year, seventh-best in state history, earned her first-team all-state and the 2010 Nebraska Freshman Player of the Year award.
College scouts had taken notice of the young righty back in middle school, but after multiple other local players she knew committed to Nebraska that freshman year, it seemed like the perfect fit.
“Looking back on it, maybe we could’ve waited a little bit longer to have her commit,” Steve Wing, her stepfather, said. “But when you’re in the moment, it’s like here’s a 14 year-old girl who’s at the top of her game being offered a Division I scholarship. It’s kind of hard to pass up.”
She never found the same success again.
In her sophomore year, Cain developed “the yips,” a nearly inexplicable mental block that can make a routine athletic motion erratic and nearly impossible. One of the most famous yips cases is Steve Blass, a former all-star pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 1960s and 70s. He was the 1972 Cy Young Award runner-up and then lost control. The next season, Blass walked 84 batters in 88 2/3 innings had the worst season by any Major League Baseball player since 1901, according to the Wins Above Replacement statistic.
But when you’re in the moment, it’s like here’s a 14 year-old girl who’s at the top of her game being offered a Division I scholarship. It’s kind of hard to pass up.Steve Wing
“This is a different animal,” said Dr. Richard Crowley, a sports psychologist and yips expert who Cain reached out to in 2016. “Every single person I’ve ever worked with, they’re pissed at themselves, they’re mad at themselves, they’re blaming themselves. This ‘thing’ makes you believe it’s your fault. And that adds insult to injury.
“(Doctors) analyze it and analyze it and overwhelm (the players). There’s no logic. You’ll never find any.”
Sometimes, the yips last for a batter for an inning. Sometimes, a game or a series. Most affected MLB players — like Steve Sax and Chuck Knoblauch — return from the yips. As for Blass, he never escaped whatever mental block wrapped itself around his arm. He retired after spending much of the next season in the minors.
“It was tough because we didn’t know how to help her,” Wing said. “We went from uncharted territory with her being at the top of her game to uncharted territory in ‘OK … what happened? Was it physical? Was it mental?’ We really had no clue.”
Everything felt normal in the circle, until she tried to follow through. Her arm simply stopped at certain points of her motion. At the time, she wasn’t sure what was going on. No one around her was quite sure either. Everyone, including Cain, thought she needed to pitch her way out of her funk.
“It’s so simple,” Cain said. “My arm just has to go around in a circle. But the second I remove (the ball from) my glove, the ball doesn’t do what it’s supposed to. … It was like I could never throw a pitch.”
Running the bases during an indoor practice after sophomore year, Cain slipped and fell. Her tibia and fibula fractured. One positive Cain took from the injury was that, unlike much of the East Coast, Nebraska softball plays in the fall rather than the spring, so Cain healed up in time for summer ball.
On her club team, the Nebraska Gold, she pitched as if nothing had ever happened. Not just the leg fractures, but the yips as well. Her speed and command returned. Everyone was puzzled. She hit the spots she was supposed to hit.
Cain’s resurgence didn’t convince the Cornhuskers, and her previous shaky season spooked the coaching staff. It was then, during the club season, that Revelle informed Cain that Nebraska was rescinding the athletic scholarship it had offered the year before. Revelle told Cain she could still attend on an academic scholarship, redshirt during her freshman season and earn the athletic scholarship back, Cain said. Her spot on the team was no longer guaranteed.
“I bawled my eyes out,” Cain said. “I didn’t understand it. I really didn’t understand anything that was going on to be honest.”
Still, Cain wanted to play at Nebraska.
But at the end of the summer, just before junior year, Cain suffered a stress fracture in the ulna of her throwing arm. The only thing she could do all season was take batting practice. No throwing for three months.
This time, when she returned, so did the yips. In summer travel ball before senior year, she remembered pitching “fine” against the Olathe Rockets, a team out of Kansas City. Then, in one inning, umpires called her for nine illegal pitches. To adjust, Cain tried to change her motion. The next day, she couldn’t throw straight.
“You have this helpless feeling,” Wing said. “You want to have answers for your kids when something goes wrong, but we didn’t have an answer, and we didn’t know how to get an answer.”
Cain struggled more than she ever had. No one had an answer. Cain’s frustration only mounted when she flashed moments of brilliance that used to come easily.
One Saturday morning that summer at Skutt (Nebraska) High School, everything seemed to change. Cain didn’t throw with the same speed she once had, but her command was as strong as it had ever been. Her high school coach, Don Brummer, and Wing watched from the stands as Cain fanned batter after batter.
“We were so excited when we left that game, because we thought, ‘She’s got it back,’” Brummer said. “We started to see the old Faith.”
The next day, for some reason, Cain couldn’t find her spots. It was like someone flipped a light switch, Wing thought.
Her senior year was filled with much of the same. During the season, Cain’s family reached out to a local sport psychologist for the first time, but she found no answer. As Cain’s senior season drew to a close in early November, National Signing Day for early intent approached. Cain struggled in the circle, but still excelled at the plate as one of the best first basemen in the state, Wing said. During that season, Cain still ranked as the 54th prospect in the country, according to FloSoftball.com.
Shortly after the season ended, Revelle called Cain with bad news for a second time. Home alone, watching television, Cain’s dreams crumbled.
“You know you can’t come here,” Revelle said, according to Cain.
“It was the most difficult recruiting decision we have ever made,” Revelle said in a statement to The Daily Orange, “one that was made over an 18-month process. … We recruited her as a pitcher and needed to use her scholarship for a pitcher. When she was unable to pitch anymore, we felt we had to move in a different direction.”
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Cain said she understood, because she hadn’t done the job she’d been recruited to do. Eight months from what was supposed to be her first season of collegiate softball, Cain had nowhere to go.
“That was the hardest thing we’ve ever gone through,” Wing said. “… We really didn’t have (a plan). We had put all our eggs in one basket.”
After hanging up with Revelle, Cain called Brummer and his wife Angie, looking for any possibilities of other schools. Within a few days, the coach received multiple texts and emails from local Division II schools and a few small Division I schools. None near the caliber of Nebraska, Cain said. Nowhere she liked.
In past summers, Cain had occasionally subbed in as a pitcher for the Omaha Quakes, a local club team. The head coach’s daughter went to Highland Community College in Highland, Kansas, so Cain decided to visit to check out the program. Meanwhile, she thought that she would never play for a junior college. More people showed up to her high school games, Wing said, than the Highland games.
Yet Cain loved the campus the minute she set foot on it. She quickly connected with Highland head coach Heidi Jordan, who promised Cain that she would help return the pitcher to her dominant past and send her to a top D-I program.
“Her first pitching session,” Jordan said. “I knew it’d be an easy fix.”
For the Scotties, Cain played first base and pitched. She threw just as much as Jordan’s other three starters, joined every pitcher-catcher conversation and did every pitching workout. Every day for two years, she tried to shake the yips.
The task proved more difficult than Jordan expected. Every day after a two- to three-hour practice, the pitchers worked together for another hour, which Cain and Jordan followed with an hour pitching themselves. But Jordan remembered one specific day during sophomore year that she thought nearly broke Cain free. This time seemed different.
Jordan brought Cain out to the field and sat on a bucket beside the circle that now had tormented her pitcher for five years. Jordan told Cain to think of her most vivid pitching memory. As the sun set, with no wind, no distractions and no one else around, Jordan wanted Cain to visualize every detail of the game. Every pitch, every batter, who she looked at in between pitchers, how hard the catcher threw the ball back to her, her celebrations. Cain saw herself in the Nebraska metro semifinal against Papillion La-Vista, a game from freshman year of high school in which she dominated and her team won in extra innings. Cain didn’t use a ball. She simply stood in the circle and went through her motion and reenacted every single pitch she threw that day.
For three frames, Cain flew through the lineup. She pinwheeled her arm, never stopping, smoothly finishing her pitches. She imagined herself sending batters back to the dugout. Her motion was perfect.
During the middle of the fourth inning, Jordan slid a ball into Cain’s hands and told her to keep throwing. On the next pitch, Cain stopped in the middle of her motion.
“During the visualization, she was in the game,” Jordan said. “She was competing, and when I slid that ball into her hand and had her go and she still stopped, you could just see that breakdown inside.”
Cain never returned to her old pitching form at Highland. During her second year there, she began working with Crowley, trying to find a solution, but still nothing worked. Instead, she focused on her hitting and playing first base. In two years at Highland, Cain hit .397 with 21 homeruns. She earned All-Kansas Jayhawk Conference honors in both 2015 and 2016.
In the second year at a two-year school, forced to reconcile with notion that pitching simply wouldn’t happen, she considered other options. She liked the idea of being a sports broadcaster, so at the beginning of her sophomore year, Cain applied to Syracuse’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications.
The arrival of an acceptance letter from Syracuse came with a rejection from Cain, one years in the making. She would go there, even if it meant she couldn’t play softball.
Cain never had to make the sacrifice she’d finally come to terms with. Jordan had a friend at Syracuse, softball assistant head coach Alisa Goler. Once Cain was accepted into Newhouse, Jordan knew that she had to find out a way to get Cain to walk onto the SU roster. During Cain’s sophomore season, Jordan and Goler continuously talked about the possibility of Cain playing softball for the Orange. Before Highland played Fort Scott on April 19, Jordan pulled Cain aside in the dugout and showed her a text from Goler.
“She said ‘Coach, is this for real?’” Jordan said. “And I said, ‘Yes Faith, it’s for real.’”
Ten months later, Cain suited up in blue and orange for Syracuse. She started the year hitting only .185 after the team’s first 10 games. But now, the junior ranks among Syracuse’s top five in nine hitting categories and, during a five-game road sweep of Pittsburgh and Canisius in mid-April, Cain played the best softball of her collegiate career. She batted .526 with two home runs and 14 RBIs to earn ACC player of the week.
Cain doesn’t practice pitching anymore. The coaching staff is open to her working on it, but she’s left that invitation unanswered. Since coming to Syracuse, she hasn’t gone into the pitching circle at all. Every once in a while at practice, she goes through the familiar windup only to find her arm still stops midway through the motion.
“Pitching is always my first love,” Cain said. “I wish I could still do it. If I could, I would. … But I knew I’d have to give it up.”
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Published on May 2, 2017 at 12:42 am
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