Her plan, for the moment, is outlined and organized. Alicia Pille has a one-year job set up after graduation. She’ll apply to occupational therapy school after that. Then she’ll chase a dream career in medicine.
Pille, a senior right-hander on Kansas’ softball team, always thought she wanted to work in a medical field. In high school, she took one of those career surveys, and the results spit out a term she hadn’t heard before: “Occupational therapy.”
But the plan, she says, began to crystallize on the night of Sept. 30, 2013.
It was her 21st birthday, a typical day during the fall of her junior year. Pille was inside the softball locker room. Her phone had filled up with texts and voicemail messages all day, but Pille thought little of it. It was, after all, her birthday. Then the call came in.
Her younger brother, Austin, a high school senior, had been injured in a horrific car accident back home in Texas. He had suffered a spinal-cord injury near the sixth and seventh cervical vertebrae. Austin, a former high school football player, was in danger of never walking again.
Pille raced home to Nevada, Texas, staying in the hospital with her brother and family for the better part of a week. The nights were long. The future was fuzzy. The family watched Austin begin months of grueling therapy and the long process of re-learning how to accomplish even simple tasks. For Pille, the idea of becoming an occupational therapist had once seemed like a career aspiration. Now it seemed more like a calling.
“When his accident happened,” Pille said. “It just kind of confirmed it for me.”
While Austin, paralyzed from the chest down, dived headfirst into rehab and recovery, Pille returned to Kansas for her junior season, where she helped the Jayhawks to the NCAA Tournament while recording a 2.38 ERA. One year later, Pille has pitched the Jayhawks back to the postseason, logging a 2.90 ERA while starting 30 of Kansas’ 51 games.
“She’s so mentally tough,” said teammate Chaley Brickey.
Pille is also the best bet to take the ball at 4 p.m. Friday when Kansas, 38-13, opens NCAA regional competition against Louisville, 30-17, in Columbia. No. 10 seed Missouri and Indiana State will face off in the second game.
For Pille and the rest of the Kansas seniors, the regional offers an opportunity to extend their college career for another week. For Austin Pille, who graduated high school on time last year, the weekend presents a chance to make the nine-hour drive with family and watch his sister in person.
“It just makes me appreciate everything so much more, to not take advantage of what I’m given,” Pille said on Tuesday afternoon. “This is such an amazing opportunity, and he loves to come watch. He’s watched me play since I was little.”
The excitement, Pille says, works both ways. In high school, her brother pushed 300 pounds while playing offensive line and linebacker for Royse City High School, a school just northeast of the Dallas-Fort Worth area. During the rehab process, Austin has dropped 40 pounds and spent the last year taking online classes at Collin College in McKinney. Back in Lawrence, Pille has kept tabs on the process. Her brother, she says, would like to be an engineer. That’s his plan.
Pille still believes her brother will walk again. Her parents, Dean and Angela, do too. There have been positive signs in the rehab — in March, Austin moved his foot during a rehab session — and Pille has thought about how a career in occupational therapy could make things easier on her brother.
“She just has that determination of a pitcher,” said Brickey, a KU infielder. “There’s not many places you can find it. If she gives up a hit, she’ll just look at us and let us know that she’ll fix it. She lets us know she’s there for us, and we’re there for her.”
For now, Pille is waiting to see if she’ll pitch on Friday. By tradition, Kansas coach Megan Smith likes to keep her pitchers in the dark until just before game time. But either way, Pille says, she’s ready for what comes next.
“This year, as a team,” Pille said, “we’re determined to win this regional.”
To reach Rustin Dodd, call 816-234-4937 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @rustindodd.