Poland’s Gabriel on the mend


By Tom Williams


The toughest 10 months of an amazing softball career haven’t dimmed the smile of Poland native Erin Gabriel.

The Vindicator’s Female Athlete of the Year in 2010, 2011 and 2012 is recovering from surgery in May to repair a labral tear on her left hip.

“They also had to reshape my hip bone and elongate a tendon,” the 2012 Poland High graduate said of her first major injury.

It’s been an usual summer for the very active teen, but the University of Tennessee pitcher has kept her sense of humor.

“Eight a.m., five days a week,” she said of the chemistry course she’s taking at Youngstown State University to keep her on pace for a four-year degree. “It gives me structure.”

A college student on summer break willingly choosing an early wake-up call? To Gabriel, it beats inactivity.

“I was so bored at the beginning of summer, not being able to do anything,” Gabriel admitted.

She has found positives to concentrate on while she heals. Her parents George and Lori spent as much time with her in Knoxville as they could.

“I started focusing on other aspects of my life,” Gabriel said. “School went well, I met people who are going to be lifelong friends. Focusing on something other than softball was new — I found I have a lot to be [thankful] for.”

The experts aren’t sure what caused her injury.

“I could have been born with it,” said Gabriel, who first felt pain last September while lifting weights. “They are not sure if that was the cause of it.”

A few days later, she tried pitching.

“I fell over during one of my pitches,” Gabriel said. “That was weird. I was scared.”

She sat out the next five weeks, missing most of the Volunteers’ fall season.

“Everything seemed to be doing fine,” said Gabriel who was able to work out and pitch during Christmas break.

But on the second day back in Knoxville for winter semester, pain returned.

Therapy followed and didn’t stop her from making her college debut.

Gabriel made eight starts for Tennessee, compiling a 5-1 record. She struck out 39 batters in 28 innings. Her earned-run average was 2.66, more than double of what she compiled during her impressive four-year varsity career that helped send Poland to state three times.

By the end of March, the pain had spread to her back so an MRI was ordered.

“I couldn’t really walk, I was hunched over,” said Gabriel, who had been selected to 2013 USA Softball Junior Women’s National Team just before her season ended.

Surgery was performed on May 2 and doctors found more damage than expected.

“A torn labral is only supposed to take two-to-three months for therapy,” Gabriel said. “[But] I had to have my hip shaved down and reshaped and to elongate the tendon [made it] a six-to-nine month process.

“I wasn’t expecting that [news] when I woke up,” Gabriel said with a laugh.

Rehab was something new for a player used to dominating.

“This is the first time I’ve ever had to experience sitting out,” Gabriel said. “Having to come to terms with the fact that I wasn’t able to play and help my team was the hardest thing in my freshman year to deal with — not being away from home, not adjusting to school, but not being able to play softball.”

Gabriel’s teammates put on quite a show. The Volunteers, coached by Karen Weekly and assisted by her husband Ralph, finished 52-12, qualifying for the College World Series for the sixth time.

“Our coaches believed in us from the beginning that we were going to get there,” Gabriel said.

In Oklahoma City, Tennessee and Oklahoma won the double-elimination portion of the tournament. Tennessee beat Texas, 2-1, to qualify for the CWS finals.

“Surreal” was how Gabriel described the feeling of seeing her teammates finish as one of the nation’s top two teams. “I’ve been dreaming of this since I was 7 and watched the College World Series on TV.”

In the best-of-three final series, Oklahoma swept Tennessee, but the Sooners needed 12 innings to win the first game, 5-3. The other score was 4-0.

“I had to sit,” said Gabriel, who was getting around on crutches during the College World Series. “I couldn’t stand at that point. Teammates would stand by me so I wouldn’t be alone watching the game.

“They made a lot of adjustments for me and I am very grateful,” Gabriel said. “I had to navigate on crutches so the last six weeks of school were very hard. It seemed I was unable to do anything for myself, but my teammates were there helping.”

In high school, Gabriel played for Team USA in tournaments in Bogota, Colombia, and Cape Town, South Africa. Her recovery prevented her from playing for Team USA earlier this month in the International Softball Federation X Junior Women’s World Championship in Brampton, Ontario.

Undecided on her major when she went to Tennessee, Gabriel says she has narrowed it down to sports management or nutrition.

“Two things I thought I would never do,” she admitted with a grin.

Most of her therapy is being done in Poland. She recently went to Knoxville and has been cleared for upper-body exercising and light workouts.

On Aug. 17, she’ll return to Knoxville to get ready as classes begin on Aug. 22 and practices shortly thereafter.

“I won’t be able to do anything explosive until at least September, possibly later,” Gabriel said.

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