Citizen Staff Writer
Fans in the bleachers probably didn’t think much of it.
But when 65-year-old umpire Stretch Johnson walked to the pitchers circle before the first pitch of an otherwise normal club softball game Jan. 26 in Phoenix, the conversation he had was one he’ll never forget.
Johnson, who was forced to stop calling Pacific-10 Conference games two years ago when he had emergency surgery for colon cancer, wanted to have a few words with 16-year-old Kenzie Fowler, whose offseason included a life-saving emergency surgery to remove blood clots that had worked their way from her powerful throwing arm to within inches of her heart.
“I told her ‘Welcome back,’ ” Johnson said. “We both made it back.”
By all accounts, Fowler’s return to softball at all, let alone in time to make Wednesday’s season-opening start for Canyon del Oro High School, is remarkable.
She’s “about 85 percent.” Her loss of velocity – she topped out a year ago at 72 mph and has only reached 67 once in her rehab – forced her to develop several other pitches.
Her prowess with the new pitches showed on Wednesday. Behind 12 strikeouts in five no-hit innings by Fowler, CDO beat Amphi 9-0.
Her road back to the game she loves, though, was far from easy and is far from over.
Less than three weeks after dismissing arm pain and fatigue in the Class 4A Division I semifinals and championship game in May – Fowler pitched four-consecutive tournament shutouts en route to a CDO state title – the junior Olympian’s right arm began to swell and discolor in a throwing session May 31.
She was diagnosed with thoracic outlet syndrome. Muscles in her shoulder were allowing blood to flow into her pitching arm but not out.
Multiple surgeries over the next 12 days she spent in the hospital, including a seven-hour procedure June 5 that required cutting through her sternum, removed 7 inches of blood clots from her shoulder and near her heart. A vein from her leg was used to replace a damaged one in her arm.
Had the clots worked their way much closer to Fowler’s heart, it could have been fatal.
“It wasn’t all that much fun,” she said earlier this week.
Neither has been the grueling physical therapy since.
“Her work ethic is incredible,” CDO coach Amy Swiderski said. “She’s like a lot of other girls on this team. She’s determined to keep this program at a very high level.”
Armed with a clean bill of health for Fowler, a junior, senior catcher Rose Magaddino (she calls all of Fowler’s games), senior Megan Franklin (all southern-Arizona in 2007) and junior third baseman Katie Asher (three-run homer in Wednesday’s opener) hope to lead a retooled CDO squad to another state title.
“We have six freshmen on this team, but we’re going to be good,” said Magaddino, who has committed to play at Drake University in Iowa. “It’s our job (as upperclassmen) to show them the ropes, show them how we do things here.”
Among the freshmen are Fowler’s younger sister Mattie, who plays shortstop and had two doubles and a triple in Wednesday’s opener.
“I think we have a shot at being real good this year,” Kenzie Fowler said at a practice earlier this week. “After everything I went through, I’m just glad to be out here. I’m having fun again. I think I appreciate softball and being part of this team so much more now than I ever did before.”
PLAYERS TO WATCH
AMPHI: Danielle Bravo, Megan Huerta, Vanessa King, Jessica Manley, Jillian Ware, Marisa Zuniga; BENSON: Brittney Batten, Megan Ellsworth; BUENA: Alicia Banks, Shannel Blackshear, Meghan McIntosh, Alexa Straton, Jordan Trujillo, Melissa Williams; CDO: Katie Asher, Kenzie Fowler, Megan Franklin, Rose Magaddino, Lindsey Weldon; CATALINA: Christina Blair, Davina Flores, Cassandra Martinez, Alexis Vasquez; CHOLLA: Marissa Gauna, Bianca Haro, Lori Lopez, Monica Ornsby, Nicole Rosales; CIENEGA: Ashlee Brawley, Alexa Cash, Morghan Doughty, Brittany Johnson, Brittany Keiser, Brandi Klein, Emily Pohl; DOUGLAS: Katie Campbell, Jackie Gonzales, Alexis Quintana, Stephanie Ybarra; F. WELLS: Allisa Daniels, Mari Mata; IRONWOOD RIDGE: Rachel Chapman, Morgan Long, Alyssa Welch; MARANA: Stephanie Acton, Shayna Binnion, Jacqueline Deen, Marlina Delisa, Jessie Wengert; MTN. VIEW: Sarah Alexander, Jessica Sipe; NOGALES: Priscilla Heredia, Dominik Morales; PUSCH RIDGE: Jessica Bergendorff, Shawna Bleyl; SABINO: Karissa Buchanan, Molly Brossart, Aubre Carpenter, Katie Sitzman, Chelsea Slama, Veronica Swanson; SAHUARITA: Abria Bustamonte, Yvette Alvarez; SAHUARO: Kayla Basye, Breanna Beckel, Logan Hall; SALPOINTE: Torey Craddock, Nicole Rascon; SUNNYSIDE: Ivy Campas, Mari Contreras, Domonique Marquez, Stella Pinon, Melina Trujillo; TUCSON HIGH: Clarissa Becerril, Alexis Gallego, Adriana Valencia, Stephanie Valenzuela.