CMU Softball Player Opens Up About COVID-19, Coping With Uncertainty

Story and photo by Kersten Kruse

Central Michigan University Softball Player Samantha Mills has dealt with her fair share of surprises, with the biggest one being the impact COVID-19 has had on sports.

The Harrison Township junior had to adjust within days of the news, learning that her entire 2020 season would be cancelled. As a neuroscience major, Mills was more than aware of the toll this would take on the mental health of not only herself but the entire team.

I sat down with her to ask about life before the pandemic, what motivated her to play at the university level, and how her team plans to carry on during the uncertainty that still lingers after March of last year.

In this Q&A, Mills opens up about the difficult situation her and other athletes face as a consequence of the pandemic.

How did you start playing softball?

I started when I was four with t-ball, just because my brother is two years older and I would always play with his friends.

Do you remember your first softball game?

With t-ball, no, but when I started fastpitch, I guess. I feel like I remember parts of it but not really.

What’s the difference between t-ball and fast pitch?

T-ball is for little kids and you have a tee, more like baseball. And then you go to a pitching machine, which is like co-ed, where a machine throws it, and that’s when it splits to baseball and softball. Then, I went to softball, which is fastpitch.

Who inspired you to play softball? I think you said your brother, right?

Yeah, I’d say my brother and my dad, he was an athlete, so I kind of followed that through my childhood.

Were your friends and family supportive of you playing softball in college?

Yeah, they all were really supportive. I definitely went through a phase of when I would miss everything in the summers, but my friends knew it was for college, so they were always supportive of it.

Was there a lot of training during the summers? What does that look like for you?

Well, in high school, there’s travel softball in the summer. I was gone every weekend, at least, I would have maybe two or three weekends home in the summer, so you’re never home. And there would be week trips. It was definitely a fun experience, but you did miss out on a lot of high school. Now, I don’t regret it because I’m here. But there’s definitely times where I’ve been like, “wow, that would’ve been cool,” but it was for a reason.

When did you know that softball was going to be something you’d pursue in college?

I played basketball and volleyball in high school, too, and I used to be a swimmer. At first, I wanted to swim when I was older, but it was just too much. Then, in high school, I had the most fun with volleyball, but I played travel softball and I was the best at softball. I think when I got really close with my teammates on my travel team I was like, “wow, I really like this,” and wanted to play in college. Once I started getting offers, it was so exciting. It’s like, “wow, yeah, I want to go to college.”

Was there ever a time where you thought you might not continue playing softball?

I would say yeah. There’s definitely been moments where it’s like, “this is hard, I don’t want to do this anymore.” And even my freshman year, I tore my shoulder, freshman year in college, so that was mentally tough. Then for a couple weeks or months, once I started recovering, it was the light at the end of the tunnel. I’ve had moments but nothing to where – I think that, if I did quit, the sadness would outweigh what I feel like when I play.

What does your future look like after college? What do you plan to do?

Softball after college is done, which is like fine. It’ll be sad, but when I’m older, I might do a little coaching or something, nothing serious. But I haven’t chosen what I wanted to do with my degree yet. I either want to get my masters or go to P.A. school or become a nurse in mental health, so something with mental health but I don’t know what.

What was the name of the first softball team you were on?

Team Michigan. That was the first travel one, but I played on this team called Lightning and then the Bandits, then Team Michigan was the one I was on for the longest time.

When you were in high school, what was practice like for you? How often would you have to practice to get to where you are now?

In high school, during season, we would practice five days a week. That was just when we were at school. But on my own to get to this level I had to practice a lot more. When I was in high school, my travel team – everyone was far away, so practice, our location, was an hour away. On Sundays we would have a four-hour practice and during the week I would practice on my own I would say four times – four or five times a week.

This has definitely impacted your life and who you are as a person, then. With your work ethic – being able to practice that often, so repetitively – do you think this has helped you as a student?

Yeah, I think it definitely has overall because when I’m not busy, I find it harder to get my work done because I can procrastinate. Knowing that I’m busy, it definitely drives me to get more done. I think even when I’m done with softball, I’ll always have the competitive aspect of wanting to get things done efficiently, which is good.

In terms of your team and the relationship you have with them, how would you describe that? Family, sisters?

I think this year our team has gone through like a lot of drama just because of COVID and different views. But overall, it is like a family. When we step on the field, at the end of the day, we will always have each other’s backs. We all love each other no matter what happens. That’s the fun part. Growing up, my old teams, I’m still close with them because of that. Even off the field, if we don’t get along, it doesn’t matter because I’ll still have their back. Essentially, even if we don’t like each other I’ll still care about them and support them.

What led you to continue your softball career at CMU vs. any of the other universities?

The campus. I think the environment just felt like home, walking on campus. And I think because it’s only like two and a half, three hours, from my hometown which is nice because I knew my parents could come watch. I think too, the athletic community here is small, we don’t have as many sports, which is good because we’re all on the same page and all support each other which is fun. I think overall, it’s just the community and the environment here.

 Before COVID hit, what was your athletic experience like? Were games packed? Was there anything in particular that stood out about playing softball here?

 Our games definitely weren’t packed because it’s softball, compared to other sports. There was definitely like a lot of people who would support us and definitely like other athletes who would come support, or friends. Everyone would go to basketball games or football games and it’s like now, even talking to them, they say, “it seems like no one supports us,” because they don’t see that. They don’t know who watches their games and stuff, so I get that aspect. But yeah, definitely before COVID was more fun with seeing fans. We would travel to big schools and their stadium would be packed, so that was fun. Now, I don’t know what it’s going to be.

What can you remember about the start of the pandemic? What was your initial reaction to the news?

Well, we were on our spring break softball trip when we heard. It was our last couple days and we had two games on Saturday. In the morning, our coach was like, “alright, this may be our last day of softball for the year.” We had no idea what she was talking about. We were like, “what’s going on” and she said, “Big Ten cancelled, so we are probably next.” We were still confused. We played our first game and it seemed so normal. Then after our first game, we had a little break time message, and she said this next game was the last game of the season and after that we’re going home. It was still pre-season, so we were like, “what?” and she told us to act like this was the championship game and that we would talk about what’s next. But she said we were going home, and school is cancelled and everything. That’s how we found out. We could tell during the first game that our coaches got news and we didn’t know what was going on. It was our last game. It was sad, it definitely caught us off guard. We were in Florida and everything just seemed so normal. Then, it’s like alright, we’re going home and everyone’s in quarantine.

Did you guys see it coming at all?

 We saw the day before, kinda. We were hearing, “sports are being shut down,” and stuff. We were still on spring break in Florida playing games so nothing seemed weird for us. Then once Big Ten shut down, we were like, “damn, we’re probably next.”

Did you have concerns about the team and your season during that team? Aside from it being cancelled.

 It was weird. When it happened, everyone was like, “we’re just going home for a week,” and stuff. We were like okay, things will maybe be normal. And then it definitely like has, you know COVID and how long it’s been, we thought maybe we’ll never play again during college, so that, at first, was definitely scary thinking about that. Like wow, this definitely could’ve been our last game. I think more, for the seniors, it was really sad. One actually came back and the other graduated, we only had two last year. But then, I wasn’t so much worried as much as I was like, “okay, when will we be able to practice again” like, when will we be able to see each other? It was all Zoom meetings and calls – it got really different really fast. But that was for everyone, I feel like.

Was there a point in time where you found yourself bored because you didn’t have all the things you normally would on your schedule?

Oh yeah, for sure. Especially the first week after, it was kinda nice to get a break. But then it was months. I like being up here more and I was in the dorms, and they obviously kicked everyone out of the dorms, so going home it was definitely very boring. I feel like that was the main things I struggled with – just being bored.

Now that we know COVID is here, and it’s definitely not going anywhere for a while, what does your season look like this year?

We haven’t gotten our full schedule yet. We normally do a lot of pre-season games, we normally go to Florida twice and sometimes for ten to 12 days, so that got cancelled. And we’re going to Florida, we’re supposed to go as of now, for just four days to play some games, so that’s staying a little normal. Our other two far trips are driving distance. Normally in our conference we play each team twice or three times, but now, we’re playing each team four times and we have 40 conference games and normally we have like 20 – I don’t know how many normally – but we have a lot of pre-season. Now, we play the same teams so many times and our MAC tournament got cancelled, so it’s like whoever wins the regular season wins. That’s it. It’s kinda hard to think about normally – yeah, you play for regular season but to make the tournament to win the tournament, but there’s no tournament, so whoever wins the MAC, only that team goes to the NCAA tournament. The rest is just done after season, so it’s weird but we just play a lot of conference games.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but doesn’t that make you busier in a sense?

It just makes everything more packed I feel decause we can’t play here as early as we can in Florida due to the weather. Before, we would play each team two to three times in a weekend, but now when we travel, we’re playing the same team four times in two or three days. It’s just going to be different, and it’s going to be weird playing the same teams so much, but I don’t know.

Is that going to affect how you balance your schoolwork when you go down there? I’m sure that’s a lot of catching up to do and things like that. Are you worried there’s going to be an imbalance in your schedule compared to what that’s normally like for you?

 Yeah, just because last year, our season got cancelled. It’s been so long since I had to go through what it’s like to miss class for traveling – it’s been two years. My classes this semester are a lot harder than they were freshman year. Freshman year, I could get away with it. Now I think it’s just going to be… One, we don’t know our schedule, so that makes it hard. Two, the main thing is just getting ahead and knowing, but it’s also weird because things can change every week with COVID and all the testing. Just having to keep up on it will definitely be hard.

How do you manage your mental health with all the uncertainty that’s looming over the next couple of months?

I think, honestly, mental health is the biggest thing that we are all facing now with COVID. Right now, I feel good. I’ve had mental health issues in the past and this year has definitely been the best. And it’s just because of the way we look at things – as more of an opportunity. We’ve had it all taken away so now, we’re playing but it’s for a bigger purpose and more just to have fun. Like it could be gone so fast so we mise well have fun while we’re doing it. I’ve just been trying to see it more as for the fun of it, which I think makes it better for me individually. Before, it was like if you’re thinking about all the games, you’re going to stress yourself out. But who knows if we are going to get to the games so we mise well have fun now and if we play, we play.