Grief unites Akron Racers duo

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Rachele Fico, center left, and Haley Outon, center right, each knows she can lean on the other during a difficult day.

Akron Racers co-owner and general manager Joey Arrietta knew she needed another catcher as a new season approached and the position had just a sole representative on the roster. One name, in particular, caught her eye from among the college seniors still available: a tall kid who hit towering home runs for the University of Houston.

In four seasons for the Cougars, Haley Outon earned first-team all-conference honors on three occasions, set a program record for home runs and seemed to match each blast with an academic accolade.

Arrietta was intrigued enough to go to Rachele Fico, the No. 1 overall selection in last year's National Pro Fastpitch draft, and see what Akron's second-year pitcher knew about Outon. The answer turned out to be quite a bit.

Now teammates, Outon and Fico are still a part-time partnership as a battery, the rookie still competing for time behind the plate with veteran Jessica Garcia, who has her own chemistry with Fico over 43 feet.

More permanent is a shared understanding of what it means to play on without your biggest fan.

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Haley Outon was a senior in high school when her mother, Michelle, died from leukemia.

When Outon learned a little more than a year ago that Ralph Fico had passed away the day after his daughter's final softball game for LSU, the end of his decade-long battle with cancer, she knew what Rachele would face in the days and months ahead. She knew because the only game she and her twin sister, Deidre, ever missed during their senior year of high school was the one that fell on the same day their mother passed away after a lengthy fight with leukemia.

It didn't matter that the catcher and the pitcher didn't know each other at the time. A Facebook message from Haley led to an exchange of phone numbers and then text messages. Something took root as Haley played out her final college season at Houston, and Rachele served as a student-coach at her alma mater.

"Any time she needed an ear or she thought about him and didn't really know what to do, I was just there to listen or tell her what I did," Haley said. "Really, it was just to listen because it's something that until you've experienced it, you don't really know how to respond. I think we both help each other in that sense."

It is difficult to take two steps in the Akron dugout without running into someone who shares a connection to someone else on the team. Twin sisters Hannah and Lannah Campbell are reunited as rookies after they spent their college years pitching a couple of hundred miles apart in Alabama. Cousins Nerissa Myers and Brianna Cherry, college teammates at Louisiana-Lafayette, are reunited this season for the first time as professionals. So, too, are rookies Jennifer Gilbert and Ashley Thomas, former high school teammates in Texas and best friends long before that.

The bond between Haley and Rachele is different. It is one that either party, with the wholehearted blessing of the other, would surely dissolve if it meant she could return to the world as it was before their circumstances matched. But it is as strong as those around it precisely because that isn't possible.

"We both know that if either of us is ever having a bad day, the other one is there to listen and we understand it," Rachele said of the rookie now her roommate. "She knows I'm here to give her a shoulder to lean on and vice versa. It is comforting to have someone on my team who understands and who gets it and who has gone through something similar.

"It's not something we'd ever want someone else to experience or have to go through."

Mother to twins and another daughter, Michelle Outon was usually the parent in the family whose role on the sideline was more supportive than tactical. She was the one whose daughters were from time to time mortified by the cheers she led in the stands. She was the one who countered familial competitive intensity by reminding her daughters and her husband that it was just a game.

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Rachele Fico's father, Ralph, lost his decade-long battle with cancer the day after her final game at LSU.

Still, when Deidre first took up pitching lessons, Michelle wound up filling in at catcher. At least until one of the pitches left her with a broken nose and two black eyes.

It was at that moment that Haley the shortstop became Haley the catcher, as she was for Deidre through travel ball, high school and college.

Haley and Deidre were in seventh grade when Michelle was first diagnosed with leukemia. Treatment led to remission once, then again when cancer returned during their high school years. Two days before Christmas when the twins were seniors in high school, the family learned it had returned a third time. Less than four months later, their mother was gone, along with the text messages she sent when a favorite song came on the radio, the little dance her fingers did to the beat of the music and the supportive postgame words, among so many other things big and small.

Softball was only one part of a reshaped world, but there were moments when the game felt hollow to Haley without her mom around to see it, when the realization that she would never again be there made it seem pointless to keep playing. Softball and her mom were inextricably intertwined, the field a constant reminder of all the hours and all the energy Michelle devoted to her daughters. But the more she thought about it, the more reason that was to keep playing.

"It would have just gone to waste if I didn't continue," Haley said. "It kind of made me love the sport more after she was gone because it just made me appreciate life in a whole new perspective."

It helped that she wasn't alone. Both twins now suggest, perhaps only half facetiously, that they communicate more substantively these days, with Haley a few weeks into her summer in Akron, and Deidre entering the job market in Houston, than they ever did in closer proximity as roommates and teammates in college. Whatever truth the barbs hold, sisters tease each other because they can and because it is a given that their loyalty is ultimately unassailable.

"If we had a bad day, we could help each other," Haley said. "If I wanted to cry to her or if she wanted to cry to me, it wasn't like we had to hide it. We were strong, but we could be weak [around each other] and it wasn't a big deal. We were each other's rocks in college, and I think that really helped us both get through the tough days."

That there will always be tough days explains why she reached out to a stranger a year ago.

The No. 1 overall selection in last year's draft, Fico was someone Arrietta envisioned as the face of the franchise. An All-American at LSU, Fico gave the Racers an arm to build around in a league in which the USSSA Pride and Chicago Bandits, the two perennial championship contenders, roll out names such as Monica Abbott, Cat Osterman and Keilani Ricketts. And while so stubbornly a perfectionist about her pitching as to be a detriment at times, Fico offered an unassuming, low-key personality to market to fans of one of the longest-surviving professional teams in women's sports. She wasn't the biggest star, but Akron isn't the biggest city. They fit each other well.

"When you're going to try and go forward and build a program, you need to build it around good people," Arrietta said. "I just had a very good feeling for the type of person she was."

Yet as she embarked on a professional career just weeks after her father passed away, it was difficult for Fico to know just who she was anymore. In a sport that is full of cautionary tales about overzealous fathers living out their own athletic frustrations through their daughters, Ralph and Rachele were a reminder that the same relationship could be healthy. He taught himself softball when his daughter first showed a passion for the sport. He pushed her when she demonstrated talent commensurate with the passion. But he went where she led, not the other way around.

She talked to him after every game, his advice and encouragement as much a part of her routine as throwing in the bullpen beforehand. Softball had always been a partnership between the two of them. In Akron, there was no one on the other end of the line. Adjusting to a league in which just about every hitter was the best hitter on a college team would have been difficult enough.

"It was a very, very tough time for me," Fico said. "It took a lot of time to get back on track the way I needed to be, but it was something I had to do. I couldn't just stop playing and give up everything that has brought me joy. So many of my memories of my dad come from softball, and so it's not something I could just throw away and not continue doing.

"When I'm on the field is when I feel closest to him. I know he's up in heaven watching me and he has the best seat in the house. I still play for him all the time."

There is still a rawness to her words, her dad's absence a subject about which it is clearly difficult to speak. Perhaps it always will be in some respects. More than four years on from her mom's passing, Haley can talk about losing her in a measured manner, but that belies the struggle that continues. There are still days when she needs that word of advice or a smile.

"I think I'm going to forever be adjusting," Haley said.

She adjusts so she can move forward. Just as giving up softball would have been a disservice to all her mom had invested in the game, so, too, would failing to move forward squander all her mom had done over the course of 17 years to set her daughters on their own paths. The word "fearless" is tattooed on Haley's torso. It was the word her mom most often used when she talked about her long fight with leukemia, and the script lettering is a permanent reminder of the way her daughter tries to live. Not wildly, not carelessly. But fearlessly.

Now a rookie with the NPF's USSSA Pride, Cassie Tysarczyk played against Haley growing up in Texas and is one of her closest friends.

"Haley is probably one of the most positive people I've ever been around," Tysarczyk said. "Considering everything she's been through, she's got a huge heart. You can see that in anything that she does. If she's out in the community doing an event or if she's on the field, everything that she does is with a huge heart. She's so positive and has a great outlook on life. She's always wanting to do things for other people. At the same time, she's a competitor. She's not afraid to take on the world."

Now Fico, too, moves forward. On the field, she began the week one win shy of her total from a season ago and with a team-best ERA in team-high innings. It takes confidence and concentration to throw a steady diet of off-speed pitches to hitters like those she faces in the league, assets that have returned in her second season. Beyond the pitching rubber, she is applying for coaching jobs, hopeful of landing one that allows her to keep playing during the summer but ready to do what she talked about with her dad and teach others even as she continues to learn. As he did.

"Sometimes you just want to pick up the phone and talk to him -- just about the game. Nothing really big or small, just to have him there to talk to," Fico said. "It's not the same. It won't ever be the same. You can't really replace that or fill that void. It's just something that I'm going to be grateful that I had for so much of my life."

Michelle Outon and Ralph Fico didn't get as long as they deserved or as long as their daughters would have wanted. Were they to see those daughters on a summer afternoon in Akron, they might take comfort in seeing for themselves how much they did in the time they had.

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