To understand Arizona’s feisty bulldog Alex Lavine, you need to know that her story is as much about a busted heart as it is a busted knee.
Her tale is one of grit and determination, of overcoming pain and overcoming odds, of a miraculous 52-day comeback from a torn ACL that has the Wildcats’ wild child back in the starting lineup less than two months after suffering an injury that would crush even the sturdiest of professional athletes.
If her story started and ended with the knee, it would be enough.
But it doesn’t.
A knee takes 52 days to heal.
A heart, it seems, takes much longer.
• • •
But let’s start with the knee.
On March 4, in the first inning of the first game of a doubleheader against Ball State, Lavine’s senior season could not have been going much better. Long an afterthought – told by coaches and teammates since the age of 10 that she didn’t belong – the former walk-on had blossomed into the starting center fielder for one of the nation’s great college softball programs . She was batting .459 through 21 games – fourth on the team – courtesy of a retooled swing that took her from one side of the plate to the other, no small feat in itself.
An inning later, chasing down a routine single, she watched as the ball took a sudden hop to the left. So, too, did Lavine. All of her except her left leg. Her foot sunk too deep in the Hillenbrand Stadium outfield grass, holding her knee hostage while the rest of her body went on. The knee snapped left, snapped right and popped. She fell to the ground thinking, “This is bad.” Arizona’s trainer, Bruce Johnston, sprinted to her.
Mobility tests in the dugout were not encouraging. Further tests revealed a diagnosis no athlete wants to hear.
She remembers it vividly. The pitch, the hit, the grass, the tug, the pain, the fall.
“Everything fell apart,” she recalls. “My whole world, my whole life just collapsed around me.”
For 24 hours, she allowed herself to wallow in pain and pity, tears cascading, hope dissipating.
A doctor told her the options. More than 20 games into her final season as a player — she’ll serve as an undergraduate assistant coach next year — she wasn’t eligible to redshirt. There was surgery, which would shelve her for the rest of her college softball career, or there was the alternative: to play.
Maybe 10 percent of athletes can play with a torn ACL, after first building up the knee strength around it, and that’s only after a lengthy rehab that tests their will and their pain threshold. Lavine’s father had once told her that maybe 2 percent of high school softball players ever made it to college softball, so she figured she had the odds beaten.
She couldn’t give up, she wouldn’t, as Arizona coach Mike Candrea and her teammates had come to find out time and time again.
It was those teammates that made her snap out of it, with an avalanche of social media encouragement and buckets of her favorite candies. Within a day, her mourning period was over. Her injury was March 4, her comeback plan was hatched March 5.
This was not an impossible journey, just improbable, and arduous. Earlier this year, Alabama’s Ryan Iamurri returned from a torn ACL in short order, a blueprint for Lavine’s comeback.
She knew the risks – team trainer Johnston and her doctors told her that another tear would require eventual knee replacement surgery – but she also knew that she wasn’t about to abandon even the slimmest of chances.
“I just thought to myself, ‘I’ve done so many things, I’ve worked so hard, how can I do one more thing?” Lavine says. “But that was also my little fire, I have done so much, so why can’t I do this?”
• • •
Softball fielding and batting don’t require a particular reliance on quick, lateral movements, but the risk of reaggravation is still high, and the pain is overwhelming. Worse, the discomfort.
The process would begin once swelling went down, simple range-of-motion exercises and pain threshold examinations.
Then would come the stationary bike – one revolution, stop, then another, stop, then a few more, until the knee could turn over itself without hesitation. Johnston instructed her to jump on two feet, and when she resisted and hopped on one leg – the good one – he made her try and try.
The first important check mark was getting over the fear.
“There was one consistent step: Don’t be scared,” Lavine says. “Bruce was putting me in all these uncomfortable positions, making my knee feel vulnerable. ‘Bruce, Bruce, it’s gonna pop! It doesn’t feel good.’”
“It’s not supposed to feel good,” he’d reply.
Once, while trying to throw from the outfield, she pushed herself a bit too far. She tried to one-hop a throw, and her knee buckled. She wailed and waited for Johnston or a coach to come help. They didn’t. She realized he trusted her to handle it.
Gradually, she started to clear small hurdles on the field, in the weight room, and of her own doing.
The first success came a week after having her knee drained, two weeks after the tear. She went to practice on crutches, did some exercises, returned to the dugout and the crutches were gone. Johnston told her she didn’t need them.
“That was a great day,” she says.
April 23 was even better.
After a seven-week rehab and clearance from doctors and the training staff, she returned to pinch-hit in the fourth inning of the first game of a doubleheader against visiting New Mexico State. She got a hit.
Two days later, she returned to the starting lineup against Utah.
First at-bat in the second inning, another single.
Third inning, walk.
Fifth inning, heartbreak.
Her third at-bat, she fouled a ball and ran toward first, then crumpled into a heap.
She lay on the ground, writhing but confused. This was not a knee, but a hamstring. A mixture of fear and relief set in.
This ... this was it?
“I was hysterical,” she says. “I had just worked so, so hard for seven weeks and now I’m done again? Luckily it was just a pulled hamstring.”
Thursday against Oregon, she returned to the starting lineup.
It was just a blip, a scare.
But, man, what a scare.
Just the thought of it frightened her. No Arizona softball, again? Horrifying.
She’s been there before.
• • •
Quite frankly, Alex Lavine is not supposed to be here.
Georgia Lavine says her daughter nearly died several times as a child.
At 18 months old, with her older sister battling pneumonia, Alex somehow got into a locked cupboard on a shelf, pulled out a bottle of codeine, outsmarted the childproof cap, and “we find her in the playroom, underneath a table like a little drunkard, sipping on the bottle.”
They rushed her to the emergency room to get her stomach pumped.
When she was 2, she slipped under a pool cover and had to be rescued by her 6-year-old sister, Heather. Later that year, she took off in a mall and hid, and it took hours to find her. When her mother finally dragged her through the mall kicking and screaming, an elderly woman thought she was being abducted.
At age 6, she heard her puppy crying downstairs, leaned over a railing to look and fell two stories onto a ceramic floor.
“She was born feisty, colicky, difficult,” Georgia says. “Mischievous. She took the terrible twos to the limit.”
It’s that attitude that landed her at Arizona.
Quite frankly, she’s not supposed to be here either.
“Alex is just one of those kids; I call her my little bulldog,” Candrea says. “To be able to come back from where she’s at, she needed to be that kind of kid. She’s absolutely crazy. She’s a redhead for the right reason.”
Lavine has transformed herself into a team leader and a valuable starter, but it wasn’t always this way.
Growing up, she was never the most talented or athletic player.
When she was 10, a coach on her club team, the Phoenix Storm – a team her father helped coach – told her she was the 12th player on an 11-player team. Her parents asked her if she loved the sport, if she wanted to be great, if she wanted to stick with the Storm.
“I’m gonna show this coach I’m the best player on this team,” she told her parents.
She became a four-year starter and all-region pick at Mountain Ridge High in Glendale, where she was a three-time team MVP, a two-time team captain, a one-time all-state selection. She set school records for batting average and stolen bases, and drew interest from colleges across the country.
But all along, it was Arizona. Since she was 8, since she saw her first college softball game – Arizona at Arizona State – when Jennie Finch hit a home run. She loved how the players acted around Candrea. “They loved him, they respected him,” she says, “but the first time I ever talked to him, he yelled at me.”
Between games at an Arizona doubleheader when she was 10, she approached Autumn Champion and Caitlin Lowe for autographs, and Candrea saw and gave her a scolding, “No autographs between games!”
Her conversations with the Arizona staff would get nicer.
One night after playing a tournament in New Jersey after her senior year, Lavine and her family and teammates ate at a diner in New York. Chomping on chicken strips and onion rings, she got a phone call from Arizona assistant Teresa Wilson, who’d been scouting her.
“We want you at U of A,” Wilson said, and Lavine burst into tears.
College coaches still sought her, and they stoked the fire even more when they told her she’d never play an inning at Arizona. Wasn’t good enough, they said.
She started 44 games at shortstop as a freshman in 2011 and was named to the Pac-12 All-Freshman Team, but she struggled as a sophomore as a defensive replacement outfielder, batting .125 in just 24 at-bats. That summer, she returned home distraught, dying to make an impact.
Between helping with wedding plans for her older sister, Brittany, who played softball for Brown, Alex retooled her offensive game, switching from the left side of the plate to the right, becoming a slap hitter. She spent night after night in the batter’s box with her father, Scott, as well as Brittany and their other sister, Heather, a star pitcher in her own right. It became, her mother Georgia says, “a family affair.”
And it took.
She regained her starting spot in center field and finished fifth on the team with a .297 average.
This season, she told her parents, was going to be her year.
That’s what made the knee injury so devastating. How could she get through it, after enduring so much just to get here?
Because she’s gotten through worse.
• • •
They all remember the phone call. Alex, Georgia, Coach Candrea. It was the kind of phone call that sews a player to a coach and to her teammates. It was the kind of phone call that rips your heart out.
In Portland International Airport on April 28, 2013, Candrea and the Wildcats were reeling after a three-game sweep at the hands of Oregon State, a particularly brutal set of three 2-1 losses. At times like this, Candrea is not typically talkative.
When he approached Lavine with his phone in hand, she knew something was wrong.
“Weaz, there’s trouble at home,” Candrea told her. “It’s not your dad, but you have to call your mom, immediately.”
Eboney Joshua, one of Alex’s best friends from high school and at the UA, had died in her sleep of complications from Type 1 diabetes. The two had met at Mountain Ridge when Eboney, who worked for the yearbook staff, came to take pictures at a softball practice and caught Alex screaming at one of her teammates.
“You’re angry!” Eboney told her, and a friendship was born.
“She was feisty, just like me,” Lavine says, and laughs.
It was an important friendship, one away from the softball field, one based on inside jokes and Harry Potter, from which came Lavine’s nickname “Weaz,” after Harry’s ginger-headed friend Ronald Weasley.
Lavine was devastated, and her teammates, many of whom knew Eboney, formed a circle around her and encouraged her to share her favorite stories about the friendship.
She wasn’t sure if she could play against Arizona State the following weekend, but her family and friends lifted her. Teammate Chelsea Suitos made black ribbons with the letters K-S-A, honoring Joshua’s pregame ritual of texting her friend, “Kick some ass.”
Softball, again, became her refuge.
“Softball has always been there for me,” she says. “It’s been there when I’ve had trouble in school or with guys. Softball is my Number 1. It has been there for me since I was 4 years old.”
Knee or no knee, softball is not going anywhere, even if Lavine is different now.
The week before the Oregon State series last year, when she got that awful phone call, she called her mother, complaining about her teammates’ lack of intensity. She said they didn’t appreciate putting that uniform on.
“Red, I know how much you’re hurting right now, how much this all means to you, but this is only a piece of your life,” her mother told her. “You have to start appreciating it, instead of constantly bitching about what’s not working. Take a moment and be happy for what you do have.”
A week later, she sat on her couch in Tucson and cried into her mother’s arms. She told her that she understood now what Georgia had meant.
She played against Arizona State.
“When that series came along, she said she was playing every game for Eboney,” Georgia says. “And it’s not just playing every game. It’s living every day for Eboney.”
So, you see, what’s a torn ACL?
Just a knee.
Lavine has gotten over that.