Friday, March 24, 2017

The Ace, the Comeback, and the Motivation

After a year away from the game, SIU-Edwardsville’s Haley Chambers-Book is back with a vengeance.

For three seasons, until 2015, Haley Chambers was one of the best pitchers in the nation. Seemingly better and better as time went on, opposing hitters could never seem to fully figure out the southpaw from Coatesville, Indiana.

Never pitching fewer than 160 innings, nor recording an ERA above 2.01, Chambers was not only the best pitcher in the Ohio Valley Conference, but was steadily gaining national prominence and seemed set to be a high draft pick in the 2016 professional draft.

Things changed, though, when son Wyatt was born in March of 2016. Instead of pitching her senior season, Haley spent the spring months caring for hew new baby boy and being a mom.

Her playing career was done, one of the finest in school and conference history. “I wasn’t upset with the way my junior year ended,” Haley said. “So it made it a little easier to think ‘hey, that was it for me’. [But] it took a little while for me to accept.”

Though it took a while, contentment did come. No longer an athlete, “just” a wife and mother, Haley began her post-college life.

Then, in May, the phone rang.

A Comeback?

“I knew she would be ready to go,” said SIU-Edwardsville head softball coach Sandy Montgomery.

After learning that she would be without her ace for the 2016 season, Montgomery said she “left [Chambers] alone” for much of the next several months, until that phone call in May.

Then at the tailend of a season that would see the Cougars wind up with a 28-26 overall record and a 15-11 mark in conference play, Montgomery was already planning ahead for the next year to come.

“Of course I wanted her to come back,” said the longtime Cougar coach. “She was practically the nuts and bolts of our program for three years.”

It was a call that both surprised and confounded Chambers-Book, who had added the hyphenated last name following her nuptials. “I was a little shocked at first and just didn’t know what to think,” she shared. “”I had accepted the fact that I was done, and was at peace with that. So to rethink that process, to put my mind back into the thought of having one more year left, was difficult.”

Chambers-Book credits both her husband Collin, as well as Montgomery with helping her along the decision-making process. “My husband and I made the decision together,” she said. “Everything just fell into place and I believe that there is a plan for everything and that this was ours. This was our route to take.”

To Montgomery, Chambers-Book says the honest, upfront approach was a big part of the decision, as well: “We had a conversation with the coaches, in-person, a few days after she called. My husband and I both sat in her office. Everything that she talked about in the office, she has stayed true to to this day. That really helped us make the decision to come back,” she expressed.

The deal was done: More than a year since she had pitched at any level, much less against Division 1 hitters, one of the Cougars’ finest was coming back for one more season.

The Motivation
While taking the circle again and helping her team win are great, the clear motivation behind her return is clear.

“It’s my son,” she said with a teary-eyed laugh. “There is no other answer for it. My coming back had a lot to do with wanting him to look back on this journey. When he is eighteen or nineteen and applying to college, I want him to look back on mom and dad and see that we just took a little detour, and you can get through anything. That is really what pushes me - knowing that I get to come home to him.”

With another light smile, she adds, “He will be proud, and he will know to push through anything because he has his parents who showed him how to do it.”

The Effort
Still only midway through her final season in a Cougar uniform, Chambers-Book looks like she never missed a beat. Through seventeen appearances in the circle this year, Chambers-Book sports a 1.68 ERA and already has 143 strikeouts in just over one hundred innings of work. Her strikeout/walk ratio is better than 5/1 and she boasts nearly ten strikeouts per seven innings pitched.

In a game against Auburn earlier this year, Chambers-Book took twice-defending SEC champions Auburn to the wire, throwing 7.1 innings and allowing just five hits, striking out seven, before surrendering the walk-off game-winner to the Tigers.

Her impressive stats - she ranks in the top fifteen nationally in strikeouts - have not come without a price to pay, however.

“I worked out every day of the summer,” Haley says. “And really, that’s the hardest I’ve ever worked to get my body back into shape and get myself back into pitching mode and game mode... I have a set schedule and we follow that schedule pretty well. I wouldn’t be able to do this without the team or my husband. We have a lot of help and support, and that is what is really getting me through this - allowing myself to lean on other people. The traveling this spring, being gone for three or four days out of the week; that has been a little harder than I expected, leaving my family.”

A note from Montgomery covered Chambers-Book’s return best: “I think she may be better than before; I’d put her up against anybody in the country, anytime.”

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