May 9, 2011
Written By: Courtney Cheatham, Illinois Sports Information Student Assistant
URBANA, Ill. - It started off as a routine pre-season practice leading into the 2009 season, with then-freshman Jessica Davis completing infield drills at shortstop. While working on turning double plays, the Zephyrhills, Fla., native shifted away from the bag to field an off-line throw and raced back to second to touch the base. As Davis planted her foot on the bag, an Illini player shadowing as a baserunner slid into Davis' leg, tearing her anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) and lateral meniscus.
With Davis' knee in pieces after the collision, her first year of collegiate softball ended before she ever played a game. While most consider an injury as a setback, Davis' lost playing time resulted only in motivation to improve and determination to return to the game she loved.
"I never thought I would come to Illinois and have these types of injuries because I have never injured myself before," Davis said. "When I got hurt, it made me a better player and led me to look at softball a different way and appreciate it more."
With Davis out due to her injuries, then-sophomore Danielle Vaji became the starting shortstop heading into the 2009 season. After fighting through a shoulder injury sustained during her freshman campaign in order to stay in the lineup, Vaji used the summer months to address her shoulder properly and was prepared to return at full strength for the start of the 2009 season. Vaji showed no signs of difficulty in her first weeks back, going 4-for-9 with three runs scored and three walks in five games. However, during the first day of the Wilson Tournament in Tampa, Fla., Vaji suffered a similar fate to Davis - tearing her ACL in a collision on the field.
"I rehabbed my shoulder from August to February, started practicing again in February and that's when Jessica got hurt," recalls Vaji. "I shifted positions to play shortstop and a couple weeks after, I tore my ACL going for a pop-up when I collided with a teammate. At first, I didn't even realize I injured myself."
With both players out of the lineup and unavailable to play the field, Davis and Vaji bonded over their mutual desire to avoid letting these injuries define their careers. Each used the other's encouragement and supportive attitude to maintain focused on properly rehabbing and remaining patient.
"We definitely pushed each other every day," Vaji said. "There were times I yelled at her [Davis] in the training room to keep on going."
Neither Davis nor Vaji were able to return during the 2009 season; however, both enjoyed healthy beginnings to the 2010 slate. As the Illini raced out to a 24-4 overall record through the end of March, both contributed heavily to the success the Orange and Blue experienced. Vaji hit .276 with 16 runs scored and seven RBIs during the 28-game stretch, serving as a constant threat at the bottom of the Illini lineup.
"While hurt, Danielle never walked around feeling sorry for herself, she always stayed active at practice in support of her teammates and the injuries she suffered allowed her to watch the game from the outside," Sullivan said. "I believe being able to watch has made her a confident player and allowed her to learn more about the game and what it takes to play at the collegiate level.
Davis connected for a .298 clip with six double and five homers, scoring 22 runs and driving in 21 more in her first 28 games for the Illini. However, Davis' successful return to the field was cut short against Indiana State on March 31 in only her second regular season game on Eichelberger Field ever.
In the second inning - during which the Illini would eventually score four runs to secure the victory - Davis singled and attempted to advance another base when Indiana State did not properly field her hit. Davis hustled toward second and slid into the bag safely; however, a bone in her ankle snapped on impact - ending her season immediately. For the second consecutive year, Davis had suffered a season-ending injury at second base.
Vaji continued to play strong throughout the year, helping Illinois to a 45-8 overall record, a top-25 national ranking and a berth in the NCAA Tournament with a .285 batting average, 29 runs scored and 17 RBIs. However, Davis returned to the disabled listed frustrated and at a loss for words, having never sustained serious injury in softball before in her life. It was her mental strength and sheer determination that saw her through her second stint on the DL, along with the support of Vaji, her former partner in rehab. In particular, Illinois head coach Terri Sullivan noticed the impact being on the mend for the second time had on Davis.
"Jessica's injuries offered her the opportunity to dedicate herself more to her skills as a softball player and her training as an athlete, while doing the little things that are needed to be elite," Sullivan said. "She has also shown what it takes to be a leader on and off the field and is capable of being a great one for this team."
With Davis and Vaji learning from their injuries and growing as athletes despite being held off the field for months at a time, both have shown their growth as players throughout the 2011 season.
Davis has been a consistent power threat at the plate, slugging 14 home runs and eight doubles among her 45 hits. While her home run total places her third overall in the Big Ten, Davis has been particularly effective in conference games, earning seven of her homers in only 18 Big Ten games, the most long balls of any conference player in Big Ten games only.
Vaji continues to be a constant on-base threat in 2011 just as she was during her redshirt-sophomore season one year prior. Vaji earned a 14-game hitting streak, the longest of any Illini in nearly two seasons, during tournament play and is currently connecting at a rate of .291 on the year.
Davis sees this impact at the plate as a validation of the long hours she put in preparing for this opportunity while recovering. Her spot in the heart of the Illini order as protection for 2010 All-American Meredith Hackett is crucial to the success of the Illinois offense and Davis understands the critical role she will continue to play.
"I always want to be a leader and hit with pressure when runners are on," Davis said. "I want to be a game-changer. I want to be in that situation. I love two outs, I love to strikes. I love pressure and want to succeed in it. I feel I always need to do what I am capable of when I'm up to the plate."
Now completely removed from her surgeries with nearly two full seasons of healthy softball experience since, Vaji sees an opportunity to increase her on-base percentage. Vaji knows how important it is to get on base and turn the lineup over to the leadoff spot with runners on.
"My on-base percentage is important to the success of this team. With the top of the order right after me, my job is to get on base for them. I'm looking forward to my chances to do so and put Danielle [Zymkowitz], Hollie [Pinchback] or Meredith [Hackett] in the position to drive me in."
Sullivan also recognizes the potential for greatness each possesses and sees how their healthy returns and continued success in the field and at the plate have positively impacted the Orange and Blue in 2011.
"They both had multiple injuries that took them away from the team, but you can see what both of these players are doing this year," Sullivan said. "I still consider Jessica to be a young player, Danielle as well, because of how much time they missed and how much they have been able to play with us. I believe their best is still ahead of them as softball players and as key leaders on the team."