Meet The Star’s scholar-athlete winners, Alana Vawter and Alex Totta
Alana Vawter spent half a month during her adolescence lying in a hospital bed, constricted by a disease so debilitating that it would require her to learn to walk again. A competitive athlete her entire life, Vawter was unable to move or even open her eyes for days.
She doesn’t like to share this story, and who could blame her? Her parents call it “horrifying.” Their daughter was basically on life support.
Stevens-Johnson syndrome, a rare but severe disorder in which skin tissue detaches from the body, had arrived suddenly and unexpectedly on a Thanksgiving morning. Vawter first worried that it would deprive her of an athletic future. She asked the nurses when she could return to the softball field, volleyball court or swimming pool. One rolled her eyes in response.
She finally checked out of the hospital in mid-December, and within a matter of days or hours or perhaps minutes, depending on who shares the story, she sat at the kitchen table, listing potential college destinations. Writing blueprints for how to make it happen.
“At the end of the day, I knew my life wasn’t complete without sports and that competitive aspect that I grew up with. I knew someway somehow I was going to have to make it happen,” Vawter said. “After doing all the research and everything, I put Stanford first on my list. They had the athletics and the academics. So that was the dream.”
The most difficult challenge of Vawter’s life sprung the motivation for her greatest accomplishments. Five years after her stay in the hospital, some of it residing in an intensive care unit, Vawter will pack her belongings and head to Stanford on softball scholarship, with the academic credentials befitting of one of its students.
She made only three B-grades in high school, taking nine advanced-placement classes. And she graduated Staley last month as the best softball player in the program’s history. Thirteen school records feature her name alongside them.
Vawter is The Star’s Female Scholar-Athlete of the Year.
“It’s funny,” she says. “Well, actually, it’s not funny at all. But that wasn’t the only time I was in the hospital and the first thing I was thinking about was playing sports.”
The athletic career arose after another hospital stint. Another obscure but unrelated illness. Doctors told Vawter it was like she had been struck by lightning twice.
At 4 years old, she suffered kidney failure as the result of hemolytic uremic syndrome. She was in the hospital for 21 days. It’s one of her earliest memories.
After being released, she told her parents she wanted to feel like a kid again. Like a normal kid again.
Volleyball. Swimming. She tried baseball before softball. Only two girls were on the team. One of them hit cleanup.
Vawter played every day. Her childhood home neighbors a golf course, viewable from the back yard, but as golf balls sailed overhead, Vawter would grab her glove and call her father outside for some assistance. From 43 feet away, he crouched behind home plate.
It became a daily routine for a decade.
It continues today.
“She was pretty hard on my shins in those early years,” her dad, Larry, quipped. “But over the years, it’s gone from hoping she could hit the mitt and save my shins to hoping my hand could withstand the pain when she does hit the mitt.”
Vawter was a hard-throwing pitcher, and she was recruited to Stanford to pitch, but she’s also one of the best hitters in Kansas City. On the mound, she posted a 0.80 earned-run average in 131 innings during her senior season at Staley. She struck out more hitters (141) than those who reached base (112). At the plate, she hit 10 home runs in 71 at-bats. Five doubles and two triples, too. She struck out only four times all fall.
“Phenomenal, phenomenal athlete,” Staley coach Jeff Cain said. “And as hard-working and dedicated to the game as you’ll ever see. She has enough God-given ability to be great, but I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a girl put so much time and effort into the game as she has.”
The payoff is a four-time all-conference selection and a two-time all-state honor. Recruiting websites rank her among the best high school seniors in the nation.
And to think: Her parents say it took her two years to feel like her normal self after the 17-day battle with Stevens-Johnson syndrome in the seventh-grade. In her initial physical therapy session, she learned to walk without tripping over her own feet.
Two weeks after that, her mom posted a video to her Facebook page. Vawter is tossing a beach ball back and forth with her two older brothers, mimicking the movements on the volleyball court.
“She could still barely walk,” her mom, Susie says. “But there she was, sitting on this little chair, wanting to get back at it.”
She became a student of the game during her absence from it. It was all she could think to do.
Still is. Between innings of her softball games, Vawter engages in crash study sessions. With her catcher, Vawter looks at her pitching chart from the earlier innings. Then dissects the sequences of her pitches. Takes mental notes of which hitters have seen fastballs, which have seen riseballs, which have seen her drop-curveball.
And then she maps out the next inning.
It’s indicative of her personality in the classroom, too. Jairus Tapp coached Vawter during her freshman year at Staley — and quickly moved her to the varsity cleanup hitter after just 10 games — and later had her in class in AP Language. The similarities stood out almost immediately.
Vawter enjoys being the center of the action in a softball game. She’s not shy in the classroom, either. Late in the semester, as Tapp is preparing students for a year-end national test, he explains the format of three essays. Vawter’s response to the explanation was a bit unique.
“Most kids, when you tell them the format, they just nod along and say ‘OK’ or they write it down and then they know it,” Tapp said. “But she really wants to know the ‘’why.’ And what if I did it this way? What would t he readers think?’
“She’s very, very curious. She’s a kid who asks a lot of questions and keeps you on your toes.”
Vawter is a prototypical multi-tasker. Has to be, given the workload she assumes. In her book bag, she carries a softball “spinner,” a tool for creating muscle memory for her pitches. On team bus trips, as some teammates play or text on phones, Vawter completes homework assignments. She was class president and student council vice president. A finalist for homecoming queen.
But she manages. Thrives in that role, actually. When she lists the reasons for picking Stanford, she says she’s looking forward to “classes that are going to knock me down.”
It’s also why at 8 years old, she wanted to talk to her dad about softball. She had played catcher in her first year of kid’s pitch, but she wanted more from the game. Wanted to pitch.
“Why?” her dad asked. There’s more pressure there, he warned.
“I want to be in charge of the ball,” she said. “I want to be the one under pressure.”