A year ago, Kathy Slaten was relieved when her season was over.
She was burned out. She walked off the mound and off the Cal State Northridge softball team because she was tired of the pressure of carrying a team on her strong right arm, tired of the taunts from opposing batters who came to the plate with blood in their eyes. Just plain tired.
Slaten, one of the best women's softball pitchers in the country, soon changed her mind, however, and returned for her senior year.
She will walk off the mound again today after CSUN's final game in the NCAA Division II World Series in Akron, Ohio, but this time there will be no relief. Dread and apprehension might better describe Slaten's emotions.
This time, there will be no turning back. She will have used up her eligibility. For the first time in a dozen years, she will not be known as "softball pitcher Kathy Slaten" . She will be "future bride Kathy Slaten , " then she will be "Mrs. Kathy Ayala." She will be "housewife Kathy Ayala." And there'll be yet another title when she finds a job.
But the words "softball pitcher" will be severed just as permanently as her maiden name after her wedding to Aaron Ayala.
"I'm not looking forward to the end," she said, "because this is the end. There is going to be nothing after this weekend. I've been pitching for 12 years and it's kind of sad. I've been blessed with great natural talent, but once the weekend is over with, my identity will be gone. I know there's more to life than softball, but I don't know what it will be like.
"I've been popular since high school because of what I've done in sports. But then, not to have it anymore . . . I don't know. I'm used to having stories in the paper, going on TV. Not to have that anymore will definitely be different. I won't be able to tell anybody who I am anymore. They'll say, 'Who?' "
Slaten may be gone, but anybody who checks the Lady Matadors' record book won't be asking, "Who?" at the mention of her name. In her three previous seasons, Slaten led Northridge to three consecutive NCAA titles, had a lifetime career record of 101-27, an infinitesimal earned-run average of 0.20, 1,222 strikeouts in 1,032 innings, 18 no-hitters and 77 shutouts. This was after being a two-time Southern Section MVP at La Reina High in Thousand Oaks where she led her team to two straight Southern Section titles.
Entering this weekend's Division II World Series, the four-time All-American is 21-4-1 with an 0.33 ERA and has struck out 187 in 171 innings. Yet with all that, it's been a struggle this year. Relatively speaking, that is. A struggling year for Kathy Slaten is the kind of year most other pitchers would give their right arm for.
She began the season on the sidelines, forced there by carpal tunnel syndrome--a nerve injury caused by extreme pressure placed on the index finger. There was an ache in the joints of her fingers and a soreness in the knuckles. She had stretched some ligaments from overuse. Rest was the only cure. But there will be plenty of time for that after the season. A lifetime to rest.
So after missing two weeks, she returned to action but found she had lost some speed off her fastball.
There were other factors to adjust to. No longer was she Northridge's only star on the mound. Lisa Martin, recruited by Coach Gary Torgeson when he wasn't sure Slaten would be back, and Delanee Anderson have emerged as excellent pitchers. So Slaten, normally a slow starter, was forced to deal with a lighter workload.
"When I was struggling," she said, "I asked myself, 'God, why did I come back?' "
But now, she has no regrets. A summer spent pitching for a semipro team in Connecticut convinced her there was more to softball than strikeouts and shutouts.
"I didn't feel comfortable with the people on my semipro team," she said. "I realized how important friends are. I knew I only had one more year to spend with my friends here at school, and what's better than spending it with them on a softball field?"
Torgeson said the slow start actually helped Slaten become (opposing batters, read at your own risk) better.
"She's not trying to blow everybody down now," Torgeson said. "When her best pitch flattened out, she learned to pitch in and out to hitters. And her changeup is really effective. She's got more tools to draw from now. She's more mature. Pitchers can't throw smoke all their lives. The smart ones get a better mix of pitches. The others will burn out."
As a reporter finished his interview with Slaten the other day, he asked her how old she is.
"Twenty-two," Slaten replied. Then, after a pause, she added, "close to old."
After today, it'll seem even closer.