University of Missouri

Mizzou softball pitchers’ head injuries put spotlight on safety, facemasks

A terrified Tori Finucane, temporarily deaf and blind, crumpled to the dirt in the pitching circle during an NCAA super regional softball game last May.

She can’t remember throwing the pitch, the resulting line drive off the bat of UCLA freshman Kylee Perez, “and probably like 20 seconds after.” Nearly a year later, Finucane still hasn’t watched a replay, but the scene remains unforgettable for those who did.

Finucane ducked as she raised her glove in self-defense, but standing fewer than 40 feet from Perez’s bat, there wasn’t enough time to avoid the bright-yellow 12-inch circumference, 6  1/2 -ounce ball. After the ball struck near her left temple, Finucane helplessly waved a shaking right hand in the direction of the Tigers’ dugout as she covered her bleeding nose with her other hand, the left side of her head throbbing from a hairline sinus fracture.

“I just ran into the infield,” center fielder Taylor Gadbois said. “I was in shock. I think a lot of people were.”

The ball missed Finucane’s left temple by an inch; doctors say a direct hit might have been fatal.

“The first thing I thought was, ‘I hope this doesn’t kill her,’” Mizzou coach Ehren Earleywine said. “When it hit her, the sound was just chilling. It was so solid.”

It was also a sobering reminder of softball’s inherent danger and begged the question why equipment that can protect pitchers’ and other defensive players’ faces from hard-hit balls isn’t required.

Even at a time when there’s more awareness about head-injury risks, especially in football and soccer, the NCAA has yet to mandate that pitchers, or other defensive players, wear protective headgear in softball. One of the reasons is that there isn’t a national standard on what the protective gear should entail.

But even without a requirement, Finucane is part of a growing trend of softball players, particularly pitchers, who are opting for safety over style and convention.

Growing up, Finucane never considered wearing a defensive facemask — “It wasn’t the norm, and I didn’t think about it,” she said — but now she never takes the field without one.

Missouri sophomore Paige Lowary, who replaced Finucane after Finucane was injured against UCLA, says her mother for three years tried to get her to wear a defensive facemask, which is similar to a catcher’s mask without the helmet.

“I remember telling her,” Lowary recalled, “I’m not wearing a mask unless I get hit in the face.”

Lowary now wishes she’d heeded her mom’s advice sooner.

On Feb. 27, ESPN’s Holly Rowe interviewed Lowary for a story about Finucane’s injury. A few hours later, Lowary pitched against Oregon during the Mary Nutter Classic in Cathedral City, Calif.

The Tigers were up 7-0 in the fourth inning when Nikki Udria slashed a line drive that hit Lowary above the corner of her left eye.

“The only thing I really remember from it is blood running down my face and down my neck,” said Lowary, who now wears a mask when pitching.

Before last year, Earleywine didn’t think defensive masks were necessary, but now he would support a rule to require them.

“I was old-school before Tori got hit,” he said. “Now, Paige too, it just makes sense really, especially when you put it in the context of, if it was your daughter.”

The NCAA discussed mandating defensive facemasks, especially for pitchers, a few weeks after Finucane’s injury, but no action was taken at a June 2015 rules meeting.

“We didn’t feel there was adequate data or information really to warrant requirement for defensive players,” NCAA softball secretary rules editor Vickie Van Kleeck said. “The softball rules committee requested additional data be collected.”

The committee passed a rule requiring batters to wear helmets with a facemask — a decision in line with organizations like the American Softball Association — but NCAA membership rejected it, Van Kleeck said.

Defensive facemasks are an even tougher sell, especially for pitchers who didn’t grow up wearing them. They have never been commonplace in the sport, and there’s a stigma that players who wear them are scared of the ball.

“Our generation maybe just thinks it’s a weakness type thing,” Lowary said. “In my head, I just thought it was more intimidating, I guess, if I didn’t wear one.”

The aesthetics of facemasks are another issue for some players, while some others find the equipment ill-fitting or uncomfortable.

“It was especially tough for me if it was hot or humid, because it would get slick and slide around,” Finucane said.

Slowly, attitudes in the softball community toward defensive headgear are shifting.

“I see it changing and, I want to say, for the better,” Belton High coach Jeff Hulse said. “I see more and more kids having face protection and skull and brain protection. I think it’s a really positive thing. They’re being proactive and avoiding the risk.”

Hulse, who guided Olathe East to seven state championships and 14 regional titles in 16 seasons before moving to Belton last fall, spent several years on the National Federation of High Schools’ Softball Rules Committee.

He said defensive facemasks have been a topic of conversation for several years and eventually he believes they will be required equipment.

“There’s a lot of research and numbers about concussions and these types of injuries,” Hulse said. “I see something like that coming down the road. I really do, but it has to be supported by data to give it validation.”

Many kids today aren’t waiting. The entire infield on Hulse’s Pirates team last fall wore defensive facemasks, a first in his three decades of coaching.

Belton junior ace Madison Hunsaker started wearing a defensive facemask when she was 10 years old after seeing a pitcher get hit in the face by a batted ball during a tournament in Olathe.

“She was laying there for a long time,” she said, “and I just didn’t want that to happen to me.”

Hunsaker has never regretted the decision, which was reinforced last spring watching the Mizzou-UCLA game.

“I was watching that game when Tori got hit in the face,” Hunsaker said. “They kept playing it over and over again, and it was just a scary thing to see. … The reaction time between a pitch and it being hit back is so quick. I’m glad to see more people wearing the masks.”

For many years, Hunsaker was the only player on her team who used a defensive mask.

“When I was younger, people would say, ‘Are you sure you want to wear that? Most people don’t,’” Hunsaker said. “I understand that people might say that a person who wears a mask is soft or scared of the ball … but I went against that and now it’s a natural habit.”

Hunsaker’s teammate with the Pirates, Amelie Hall, never wanted to wear a facemask, but her mother, Stephanie, intervened a year ago when she switched positions.

“My mom was like, ‘If you’re going to start playing third base, you need to start wearing a mask,’” Hall said. “Basically, it was start wearing a mask or I was going to be grounded.”

Similar to Finucane and Lowary, Hall’s opinion on the protective gear has changed.

“I was always told that my glove is my best friend and it was supposed to protect me,” Hall said, “but now I’m happy my mom made me wear the mask. I had a couple hits last year that I caught, but, if I didn’t catch them, they would’ve hit me in the face and it could’ve injured me very badly.”

As encouraging as the trend is, some question remains if the new generation of defensive facemasks go far enough.

The National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment drafted safety specifications for defensive headgear in baseball and softball during the last few years, but it has declined to certify a facemask-only device.

“We couldn’t, in ethical good conscience, make a standard for that when we didn’t have confidence that alone would protect against the kind of injuries that are going to be seen …” executive director Mike Oliver said. “To withstand a straight-on hit, it needs to be something more substantial.”

The only way a mask alone would be sufficient, according to NOCSAE’s guidelines, is if it was heavily padded like a catcher’s mask, but field players aren’t likely to use such equipment, Oliver said.

Being struck in the face by a batted ball is a rare event in softball and baseball, but the data on such injuries also proved problematic for another reason.

“The injury epidemiology indicates the risk of getting hit in the face with a batted ball is the same as getting hit in the head by a batted ball,” Oliver said. “We didn’t feel confident that we could draft a standard for a facemask alone, knowing there was also a substantial risk of head injury in that circumstance. … You could have a helmet by itself with no face protection or a helmet with a facemask, but you can’t have just a facemask and meet our standard.”

Currently, several companies manufacture defensive facemasks, but none meet the comprehensive specifications for defensive headgear developed by NOCSAE, which is based in Overland Park.

Oliver believes facemask manufacturers don’t see a market for defensive headgear that includes a shell that encompasses the entire head, even if it’s lightweight, akin to a bicycle helmet.

The lack of equipment that meets safety certifications also presents a hurdle for the NCAA in making defensive headgear mandatory, Van Kleeck said.

The net result is that safety, for now, remains an individual choice.

“There’s nothing that prevents a player from wearing a facemask right now,” Van Kleeck said. “The rules committee feels that if a player feels more comfortable wearing one of the defensive facemasks to play an infield position that they are welcome to do so.”

Unfortunately, players don’t always make prudent choices.

After Lowary was hit by a comebacker against Oregon, she begged Earleywine to put her back into the game, a request at which he understandably balked.

“I was like, ‘Go to the hospital or do something,’ but the trainer came to me and said she had no concussion symptoms, so if you want her to pitch she can pitch,” Earleywine said. “I looked at her and said, ‘Do you really want to pitch?’ She said, ‘Yeah, I’m fine.’”

Lowary had witnessed firsthand the mental anguish Finucane went through trying to get back in the pitching circle and wanted to get out there again as soon as possible.

“My eye wasn’t swollen shut yet, and I didn’t feel lightheaded,” Lowary said. “I actually felt pretty good still. No one else was warming up, and I was pitching a really good game. I didn’t feel like it was affecting me very much. Even when I threw my warm-up pitches, I felt fine, but, when that first batter stepped in there, I got scared instantly.”

After reflection, Earleywine said he wishes he hadn’t let her re-enter the game.

Finucane had trouble sleeping for several weeks after she was struck in the head last May and still experiences “constant and annoying” black floaters in her peripheral vision, which gets worse in bright sunlight or when looking at bright white monitors during class.

The spot where Finucane was hit remains tender nearly a year later and her jaw occasionally cracks and clicks. She also experiences discomfort in the damaged sinus cavity on team flights because of altitude and pressure changes.

Still, the physical recovery, even with lingering side effects, wasn’t the hardest part for Finucane.

“The hardest thing to come back from was the fear,” she said. “I was scared out there in the circle. I couldn’t help but think about it.”

Finucane, who said she never considered retiring, worked with a sports psychologist and threw a lot of bullpens trying to regain her comfort.

Her only hope now is that younger players will learn from her experience rather than experience it themselves.

“If it could happen to anybody, I’m glad it happened to me, I guess, because I could come through it,” Finucane said. “I’m scared for the girl that maybe can’t. Hopefully, now they can see that wearing a mask isn’t so bad. It’s better than getting hit in the head and having a scarier moment happen.”

Tod Palmer: 816-234-4389, @todpalmer