By Nate Rohr
Big 12 Campus Correspondent
It took just three innings to change what was supposed to be a dream season for Nebraska senior Crystal Carwile into a nightmare.
Carwile, a three-time All-Big 12 honoree with 27 career home runs entering into her senior campaign, came into the season as the centerpiece of a Husker lineup. The first baseman was one of seven seniors expected to drive Nebraska back to the NCAA Regionals after missing postseason for the first time in 14 years.
“I was very optimistic coming in (to the year) before the injury,” Carwile said. “Being our senior year and coming off one of my best years at Nebraska and with the team not graduating anybody, we were looking forward to the upcoming year and I was really excited about it.”
In her first at-bat at the UNI Dome Classic in Cedar Falls, Iowa, it looked as if the dream of a great senior season was coming true. Carwile clubbed a home run to straightaway centerfield off Dayton’s Eva Rappe to give Nebraska a 1-0 lead. In the third inning she reached base on a fielder’s choice, and advanced to third with teammate Amanda Duran at first with two outs. On the first pitch to Haley Long, Duran got into a rundown between first and second, trying to distract the defense into allowing Carwile to score. Instead, Dayton quickly threw back home. As Carwile tried to return to third, the nightmare began.
“My foot just kind of stopped,” Carwile said. “I remember the catcher coming down on me and feeling something give in my knee. I remember hitting the ground and screaming, ‘No! Not my senior year!’.
“It was kind of surreal. You dream about that stuff, you wake up and everything is okay. I couldn’t wake up from it. It did really happen and I did tear my ACL. It’s kind of mind-blowing at that point,” she recalled.
Losing Carwile would have been a giant blow to Nebraska’s offense as she led the Huskers in home runs, RBI and slugging percentage in each of her first three seasons.
“Crystal has been a clutch hitter, someone who has been pretty steady in the lineup,” Nebraska coach Rhonda Revelle said. “Even at times when the rest of the team is struggling, she seems to be pretty consistent.”
After returning home from Cedar Falls, Carwile was faced with a decision: take a medical redshirt and wait until 2010 to play her senior season, or play with a brace. Her decision was to be fitted for a brace and play through the injury.
“One of the reasons that I decided to do that was because this team had something that I wanted to be a part of,” Carwile said. “I really wanted to graduate and finish my college career with this senior class that we have now. We’ve gone through so much through the past three-and-a-half years. I didn’t want to go through it with anyone else.”
Fortunately for Nebraska and Carwile, the Huskers had the following week off before heading to Palm Springs, Calif., just 75 miles from her hometown of Chino, Calif., for the Cathedral City Classic. Carwile had time to adjust to playing with the brace.
“I was a little hesitant (on wearing the brace for the first time),” Carwile said. “Any time that there’s something on your body that’s not really supposed to be there, you don’t want it to be there.”
But Carwile settled in and picked up almost right where she left off in Cedar Falls. In her first four games back, she was 7-for-14 with four RBI and a home run against Oregon.
“I think it was crucial (to play well the first weekend back after the injury)”, Carwile said. “After something that in my mind was catastrophic happened, I almost felt like myself again and it was nice.”
Along with her strong hitting, Carwile’s return to first base was also important for the Huskers.
“Defensively, she’s such a rock at first base it makes our infield more comfortable because they know that if they get it anywhere in the vicinity, she’ll make the play for them,” Revelle said.
As she continues to work through the injury, Carwile has received more help this year than before from the rest of the NU lineup. Last season she hit 12 of Nebraska’s home runs while slugging .566. The rest of the team added just three more homers and slugged just .320. Carwile drove in 36 runs, 14 more than Haley Long, who was second on the team in RBI. This year, she is tied for second on the team with four home runs, and leads the team in RBI (28), but fellow senior Amanda Duran is just one behind.
“It’s great when you can know that other people can get the job done too,” Carwile said. “It makes you push yourself more because you always want to be one step ahead. You know that, if you’re having a tough day that day, there are other girls in that lineup that have your back and vice-versa.”
Nebraska is 7-7 in Big 12 play, but is just a few pitches away from having a far better record in the league. Of the Huskers’ conference losses, five have come by one run, including a pair of one-run losses at nationally-ranked teams Oklahoma and Texas A&M. Even though NU has not taken advantage of every opportunity it has had to pick up crucial league wins, the Huskers have gained a lot through those tough losses.
“We can basically compete with anybody,” Carwile said. “We’re one hit, one execution away from beating OU twice, Kansas once, Iowa State once, and even A&M. It’ll help us and make us realize that we’re just half-a-punch away from punching through that wall, between where we are and reaching our full potential. With our wins, it just shows what we have and that we are a great threat in one of the greatest conferences in the nation. That’s really going to help us in the next couple of weeks and going to the Big 12 Championship, and hopefully, long as it goes the way we planned it, going to Regionals.”
The adversity Nebraska has faced through injuries is not limited to Carwile’s injury. All-American pitcher Robin Mackin, who transferred to NU for the 2009 season after competing for Team Canada at the Beijing Olympics, pitched just one inning for the Huskers before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury. Sophomore Ashley Guile, who hit clean-up most of the 2008 season, is out with an injury, while outfielder Crystal Gonzalez, a defensive outfielder who made her return to the field after a year-and-a-half absence due to a knee injury early in the 2009 season, again sustained a knee injury during practice the second week of the season. Still, Nebraska remains in position to return to the NCAAs for the 14th time in the last 15 years.
“That’s definitely what’s in front of us,” Revelle said. “It’s a tremendous opportunity. It really depends on how we embrace this. We still control our own destiny as far as postseason goes. What more can you ask for? We’re competing in every game and we’re in every game.”
Carwile hopes to play a contributing role in helping lead Nebraska’s late push to the postseason.
“I think the perfect time to get hot would be right now,” Carwile said. “That’s what we need, what we want and what we’re driving for. If we can really get it rolling, we have a great shot of going 9-0 and not having to put ourselves in a tough situation.”