By BOB ETTINGER
For the Star Beacon
Prior to her senior year at Lakeside, Erica Villa was told she would never run or play softball again. There was a point Villa was ready to give up her softball career at the College of Wooster.
The daughter Sue and David Villa resolved to recover from the torn ligament in her foot, if only to fulfill her dream of playing college ball. Unselfishness led not giving up that dream.
Perseverance, in both instances, led to Villa becoming the Fighting Scots’ career hits leader.
As she had thousands of times in her 15 years on the diamond, Villa dropped a bunt and beat the throw in the fifth inning of an 11-1 loss to Kenyon College on April 21 for her 127th base knock.
“The thing was, I didn’t even know I was competing for the record until it happened,” Villa said. “I got the hit and somehow I got over to third. My coach said, ‘Congratulations!’ I asked her what she was talking about. She said I was the career hits leader. I asked, ‘Are you serious?’
“I was excited.”
Becoming the Fighting Scots’ career hits leader wasn’t something that was even on Villa’s radar.
“I didn’t even think...” Villa said before trailing off. “I don’t know. With my college career, I never went in with long term goals. I wanted to enjoy it and just do my best every day. That was all.”
Wooster manager Lori Schimmel may have been on to something with keeping the milestone quiet until after the fact.
“I think it was better that way,” Villa said. “I would have put way too much pressure on myself.”
Villa had entered the contest tied with Brianne Diorio. She finished her career with 131 hits.
Villa’s family was not in the dark, however, and because of that, her dad has a bit of a souvenir from the accomplishment.
“My dad knew,” Villa said. “Apparently, he told the coach he wanted the ball. When I bunted and was safe at first, the coach came out to the middle and threw the ball to the dugout. I saw my dad with it later. My dad still has the ball.”
It’s hard to believe that career was close to being derailed a year before it even began.
“I wouldn’t change anything, except maybe the injury before my senior year (at Lakeside),” Villa said. “They fused the ligament in my foot to the bone. The doctor told me I’d never run again. Even today, he’s still surprised at what I can do.
“I was going to be able to run again. I was going to play softball again. I was not going to change my dreams at that point. I put so many weeks into physical therapy. It paid off, thank God.”
A self-described perfectionist, Villa found a way to enjoy what is commonly known as a game of failure.
“I’m so hard on myself,” she said. “I truly realized that when you play this sport, perfection is never reached. A famous batter, I don’t know who it is right now, said you fail seven out of 10 times and if you do that, you’re still a pretty good ballplayer. I stuck with that mentality.
“When I stepped in the box, I cleared my head. I knew what I was going to do, whether it was slap, bunt or swing. I looked for my pitch and tried to do that.”
For Villa, who was always a smart player and always thinking, maybe too much at times, that was a bit of an evolution in her game.
“I guess it was experience,” she said with a laugh. Maybe I’m getting wiser as I get older. I don’t know where that came from.”
As a freshman, Villa took what could be seen as almost a perfect approach.
“My freshman year was the best year of my life,” she said. “I had nothing to lose so I just gave it all I’ve got. I’d never seen the pitchers before and they’d never seen me. I used it to my advantage.
“My sophomore year, I pressured self and I struggled. The reason I played college softball was because I loved it, especially because it’s a Division III school and it takes up so much time. I came here because I loved the games and it was the last four years in the sport. I had to do my best, no matter what.”
Staying loose and relaxed wasn’t always easy for Villa.
“I think early in my career, I would tense up, like it was life or death to get on base,” she said. “From my coach, I learned she trusted my knowledge of the game and I just did the best I could.”
During the inevitable slumps and struggles of being a hitter, Villa learned to trust in her friends and teammates at Wooster.
“One thing I did differently in college is I went more to my teammates for advice,” Villa said. “There was a girl who was two years younger than me, but she was a great slapper. I asked her what she was seeing and what she was thinking. Just going to another slapper, or my teammates in general, helped.
“That was the biggest thing. My teammates were people who tell me to stick with it. My teammates were constantly there for me. This year I could not get a break. They told me I just had to keep it up, keep swinging.”
When Villa was considering giving up the game and focusing on her schoolwork as a sophomore, it was those teammates she thought of. And it was thoughts of them that kept her from hanging up her cleats.
“I don’t know if I should even say this, but I almost quit after my sophomore year,” Villa said. “I was such a head case. The reason I didn’t was my family. I didn’t want to let them down. Even bigger was I didn’t want to let my teammates down. I didn’t want to let them down over something I was doing. That would be so selfish.”
That familial support was never far away for Villa, either.
“My mom was the one who, when I said would never get a hit again, would say I was being dramatic. She told me to keep my head up and to cheer up.
“My dad would tell me to just get in the and relax. I was going to hit.”
There were others who aided Villa throughout her entire career, which started with T-ball in the Ashtabula Little League system.
“Jay McMellen helped me switch to being a slapper when I was 12 or 13 with the Top Guns,” Villa said. “Without him, there’s no way I would have been so successful.
“I definitely need to thank Dave Jones. I had a lot of support from all of my coaches through the years. Dave supported me through the years.
“Every girl I played with from Little League up through this past year were great. My coaches were great. My parents were there for me through all of this craziness.”
With her graduation with a degree in chemistry, Villa’s career has come to an end. At least her career as a player has ended. She will continue her education at Ohio State where she will chase a master’s degree in anatomy.
“They said I could do it in a year and a half, which I will probably do,” she said. “I want go to med school. I think that’s the best route for me, so I want to learn some more biology.
“I was chemistry heavy in college. Anatomy is more interesting to me.”
Having done what she could on the diamond, Villa’s focus will turn to her other love.
“I really like learning,” she said. “I’m really nerdy. I think (getting a master’s) is the best next step for me.”
Ettinger is a freelance writer from Ashtabula.