Alabama's Molly Fichtner dreams big
Molly Fichtner gives herself away when she describes the trip from her home in Houston to ASA Hall of Fame Stadium in Oklahoma City, home to the Women's College World Series, as "only a six-hour drive."
Only a person passionate about the destination would qualify the interstate hours as "only" anything.
But every year from the time she was a freshman in high school through her freshman year at the University of Texas-San Antonio, Fichtner and her mom would get in the car and make that drive north. They weren't alone. While the World Series is a local fixture in Oklahoma City, all the more when the University of Oklahoma is one of eight teams in the field, the stadium parking lot is one-stop shopping for anyone who wants to play license-plate bingo. Many come year after year, not as fans of a specific school but for the spectacle of softball that encompasses as many as 17 games over a week.
The Fichtners usually sat in the grandstand behind one of the dugouts. One of the early trips put them on the third-base side and gave Fichtner a chance to watch up close as Kelley Montalvo played the hot corner for the University of Alabama. An All-American who was fearless defensively and powerful at the plate, Montalvo also stood all of 4-foot-10. Only a couple of inches taller then and now, Fichtner saw a kindred spirit.
If Montalvo could do it, maybe she could, too. And how cool would it be, she asked herself, to play on that field?
"It was a dream," Fichtner said. "I dreamt really big. Even when I was at UTSA, my freshman year, I went to the World Series just to watch. Even then I was like, 'Man, this is what I want to get to one day, this is what I want to work for.'"
There was another part of the dream, too. One of the countless small traditions that come to define the Oklahoma City experience for repeat visitors is the "fun fact" that accompanies each player's photo and stats on the video board as she comes to the plate. The bits of trivia are drawn from every facet of life, from the mundane to the strange or amusing to the occasionally inspirational.
Sitting in the stands, Fichtner's mom would ask her what she would submit.
The answer was always the same.
"I would put that I have Type 1 diabetes on there," Fichtner told her mom. "So that if there's a little kid in that stadium who has Type 1 diabetes, too, that she knows she can play here one day."
For Fichtner, "one day" is now Thursday.
A senior who transferred to Alabama after that school won a national championship in 2012 and who gave up a full scholarship at UTSA to walk on with the Crimson Tide, she will be behind the plate when the first pitch is thrown against Oklahoma (ESPN2, 9:30 p.m. ET) in a rematch of that championship series from two seasons ago.
She gets to live out her dream. And she may spark the same for someone else in the process.
"She's just been one of the happiest, level-headed, even-keeled kids we've ever had," Alabama coach Patrick Murphy said. "She doesn't get too high, she doesn't get too low. She always has a smile on her face. I don't think I've ever seen her in a bad mood in two years."
A 5-foot-2 right-handed hitter with decent power in high school, Fichtner drew recruiting interest mostly from Southland Conference schools. A mid-major league of modest consequence, the Southland nonetheless doesn't send teams to the World Series. At best, a player can hope to make an NCAA tournament regional and put a scare into a higher seed. That wouldn't be a bad memory to walk away with from four years of college softball; it just wasn't what stuck in Fichtner's head all those years on all those drives up Interstates 45 and 35.
Her parents and her older sister confronted her after her sophomore year at UTSA, when she earned all-conference honors for the second season in a row and was named the Southland's student-athlete of the year. They asked if she wanted to try and transfer to a school at which reaching the World Series would be a more realistic possibility. Her sister told her not to live with the regret of wondering what might have been. Her parents told her not to let the financial implications of giving up a scholarship affect her decision.
With no small measure of trepidation, she obtained her release from UTSA and reached out to Murphy.
The name on the voice mail didn't ring a bell to Murphy, but UTSA had played at Alabama a season earlier. He hung up and hoped he had just heard from the player who had hit two home runs against his team and thrown out All-American Kayla Braud trying to steal. He hoped he wouldn't have to play the role of bad guy and crush a dream.
He was in luck. More than he knew, in fact. Fichtner was the player whose game, if not name, had left an impression. She and her parents visited Tuscaloosa soon after and comfortable that she would fit in the locker room, Murphy told her that while he didn't have any scholarship money left to offer, she was welcome to walk on.
Any doubt about why she was there vanished the first time the team faced live pitching in fall practice.
"It was doubles in the gap, home runs, just shot after shot after shot," Murphy said. "I think everybody was like 'Dang, she's 5'2 and she can hit the ball.'"
She started 38 games in her first season and ranked fourth on the team with 33 RBIs. She has been even better this season, a starter in 45 games and second on the team with a .354 batting average and 34 RBIs. She cedes the spotlight to teammates like Jaclyn Traina, Haylie McCleney and Kaila Hunt, but she plays a big role. Even at 5-foot-2.
"Obviously when you first see her, just like [4-foot-10 Ryan Iamurri], you think they're small, so you want to see what they're all about," sophomore Kallie Case said. "Molly showed it right from the get-go. She's a little fireball, and she has a lot of energy. That's big for us behind the plate. I play left field, and when I can feel the energy from Molly all the way from left field it's really great.
"She might be small, but she can control the whole field."
Yet had Alabama reached the World Series a season ago, when it lost to eventual finalist Tennessee in a super regional, it's entirely possible Fichtner wouldn't have been able to play. She fell ill with a virus shortly after the team returned to Tuscaloosa and had to spend a night in the hospital because any virus causes havoc with her blood sugar level. She returned home the next day but quickly fell ill again and spent the day in the team doctor's office receiving intravenous fluids. She, of course, said she would have tried, but playing softball days later in the Oklahoma heat would have been a stretch.
Fichtner was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes when she was 12 years old.
"When you're a kid and you're diagnosed with something like this," Fichtner said, "You wonder is it going to hold me back?"
She gives herself insulin injections four times a day -- at least when ever-inquisitive pitcher Traina doesn't insist on administering one -- and checks her blood sugar level twice that many times. During games and practices, the team's trainer will check it roughly every 30 minutes, the quick prick to draw blood such a part of the dugout routine that it takes less time than it does for Fichtner to unbuckle her shin guards. It affects her on a day-to-day basis and always will. But it doesn't hold her back. That's what she wants to get across when her name goes up on the video board.
Alabama got a catcher it needed when Fichtner transferred, but it also got someone who stood and talked with a girl and her mother long after a game in Iowa a season ago after teammate Jordan Patterson noticed the girl's insulin pump in a crowd of autograph seekers.
"Not only was it a great decision for her, but it was a great decision for us to accept her into the program," Murphy said.
All of the other juniors and seniors on the roster experienced the national championship run two seasons ago. All of the freshmen and sophomores have time remaining. This season was Fichtner's only chance to get to Oklahoma City and enter the stadium with a bat bag instead of a ticket. And here's a truly fun fact. She made it.
"In the back of my mind I knew that I could get there one day, but I didn't know if the opportunity ever would come up," Fichtner said. "Sitting back now and just realizing that I'm there -- I'm going to be at the World Series and not just sitting in the stands wishing I could play here. It's going to be the most surreal moment of my life."