May 30, 2014
University of Michigan director of athletics Dave Brandon will regularly offer his view on a variety of topics related to U-M and intercollegiate sports. All his posts, along with links to related content, will be available on his page, mgoblue.com/brandon, and he is also on Twitter at @DaveBrandonAD.
It was Nicole Sappingfield's junior season. Sure, she was the captain of the Michigan softball team, batted .307 and was doing quite well in school, but Nicole knew something was amiss.
Her father, George Sappingfield, passed away in August just before she was headed back to campus. He was only 60 years old. Even though head coach Carol Hutchins told her to take as much time as she needed back home in Norco, Calif., she thought it would be better to get back to school, play the sport she loved and get on with her life as if little has changed.
She thought her plan was well thought out. She was smart, strong and determined. She believed she could handle her own feelings without bringing down her teammates, coaches and friends in Ann Arbor.
That direction could be considered well thought out. She was thinking of what she could do for her team, coaches and friends.
Unfortunately, Nicole was struggling. She knew her father's death was affecting her, but she didn't believe there was any way to stop it, and there wasn't anyone she could talk with about it.
With her junior year complete, she talked with Hutch at her end of the year one-on-one meeting. Those discussions are more than perfunctory administrative functions; it is a time to review the previous year, and talk about the future -- summer plans, academics and the upcoming season. Instead, Nicole used this time to confide in Hutch. She told her head coach she was struggling with the death of her father. It was difficult to discuss. She told Hutch how she kept everything bottled up, and that she still couldn't talk about her dad without crying.
Hutch responded, not with a lecture or speech, but with a question. "Why didn't you come and talk to me about this?" And that's all that Nicole needed.
She realized that instead of trying to protect the team, coaches and friends from her issues, she was just trying to escape the memories. Instead of trying to forget the pain of losing a loved one, Nicole learned she needed to confront the problem. She also learned that her family, team, coaches and friends were there to help her through the tough times.
She continued to have discussions with Hutch. Then in the middle of the preseason everything started to fall together. Nicole was locked in and ready to go.
As an athlete, she knew how she had to feel to play well. That meant there had to be a tinge of nervousness, and she had to trust herself and her teammates. She also reminded herself that she played this game for one reason: because it was fun. Once she got into her zone, it was almost impossible for her to fall out of it. The result was a senior season to remember on the field and in the classroom.
She returned as U-M's softball two-time captain, hit for a .402 average, did not commit an error during the entire Big Ten season and had 12 of her 25 career extra-base hits in her final season.
It was a year to remember, and she finished it off with a great run in the NCAA Tournament.
When the Wolverines played their first round games in Tempe, Ariz., Nicole knew that every game might be her last. This time, she embraced the many different factors and the wild ups and downs -- and the downs came quickly.
Michigan lost game two in the tournament to the heavy favorite Arizona State on Saturday afternoon. For U-M to advance to the Super Regional, it had to defeat San Diego State that same night and knock off the Sun Devils twice on Sunday.
If that wasn't a monumental task by itself, talented All-American shortstop Sierra Romero and Nicole both came down with the flu Saturday night.
Fighting a fever, aches and the sweltering 104-degree Arizona temperature, Sappingfield came through with two big time performances. A sliding, diving catch in game one along with a three-hit performance in the second game were just sidebars to U-M's incredible seventh-inning comeback. The Maize and Blue hit back-to-back home runs by Sierra Lawrence and Taylor Hasselbach coupled with a game-saving, over-the-fence catch by center fielder Lindsay Doyle to do what was thought to be impossible -- win the right to advance to the Super Regional in Tallahassee, Fla. Not only was it a weekend that will live in Wolverine softball lore, it will be the one weekend Nicole will remember as the most memorable moment in her life in sports.
Her epiphany in softball also carried over to academics. She carried a 3.5 GPA majoring in comparative literature, but in her senior year, her GPA jumped to 3.8. She was more engaged in her classes. She could talk and write about her dad without the fear of an emotional takeover. She understood her goals and what she needed to accomplish to succeed. Like her life in softball, her academic life helped her realize what was important, what she liked, and who she was as a person. She was having fun.
Nicole's competitive softball career is over. Her next endeavor is law school at Wayne State University where she plans to focus on human rights law. It is a cause, a belief, a passion for helping those who can't help themselves. She wants to aid those in distress using the lessons learned in the University of Michigan classrooms and on the softball field.
Good luck to Nicole, and Go Blue!