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June 11, 2003

Daily Southtown/UPS 2003 Softball Player of the Year

From: Chicago Daily Southtown, IL - Jun 11, 2003

H-F's Backe climbs hill, shuts out adversity

By Tony Baranek
Staff writer

Throughout her young life, tuning out the world for 2003 UPS/Daily Southtown Softball Player of the Year Sarah Backe has meant turning off her hearing aids.

Hey, if you suffer from profound hearing loss, you might as well take advantage of it.

If only it were that simple on that day in March 2002, when Backe, then a junior at Homewood-Flossmoor High School, was in the doctor's office getting the news she feared.

Her back was hurting. Her spine had a crack in it. She couldn't try out for softball.

Triple play. Game over.

Backe was in tears when she brought the news to H-F coach Dave Holst. She'd planned on being a varsity pitcher that season alongside senior Kristin Jenner.

"We spoke for about an hour, and she was close to inconsolable," Holst said. "I told her there were priorities in life. No. 1 was her health, No. 2 was her education and No. 3 was softball.

"I told her if it turned out the diagnosis was changed and the prognosis was better, we'd keep a spot for her to try out."

It took a while, but the diagnosis did change, the prognosis got better and Holst was good to his word.

Today, Sarah Backe is an ace pitcher, a key performer for a conference champion and one of the main reasons this year's Vikings squad will go down as one of the best in school history.

Backe posted a 23-7 record in 2003, striking out 288 batters in 188 innings. Twelve of the strikeouts came in a big win over state powerhouse Lincoln-Way East. She walked just 43. Her ERA was a scant 0.80. She fired 13 shutouts.

Enough? Backe tossed in a .296 batting average, just to help out offensively. But it was her pitching that put last year's troubles far, far behind her.

"You hope for those kinds of things, but to honestly say that I thought she'd be this commanding and dominating in games, no, I didn't expect that," Holst said. "But she's got some pitches and she's a competitor.''

Backe wears a hearing aid in each ear while pitching. But she isn't one of the area's toughest pitchers to hit — and one of the area's better fielders at that position — because of what she can hear.

"I use my eyes, not my ears (to field her position)," she said, alluding to a system suggested by Holst. "Like in situations where they want me to throw to second base. Usually you would hear them yell, 'Two! Two! Two!' But I look at my catcher and she'll be pointing where I'm supposed to go.

"I look, then I throw. Other pitchers have more reaction time because they aren't looking, but listening. But a lot of softball is visual, anyway, so it's not all that bad."

Backe has been showing how strong her backbone is, practically from her first steps. Born with apparently normal hearing, she lost virtually all of it before she could talk.

"We still don't know why," she said. "It was just a gradual thing."

What precious hearing ability remained has been enhanced by hearing aids. And when Backe reached an age when some kids start dabbling in sports and other competitive activities, she did the same.

"I planned on playing baseball," she said. "But my dad said I had to play softball or nothing at all."

It had nothing to do with her profound hearing loss.

"Oh, no," she said, breaking into a smile. "He told me that it (baseball) would be too rough playing with the boys. Now I'm glad he said that."

Backe played softball in various youth leagues and was on track to play varsity softball at H-F when her back pain began, during conditioning for the 2002 season.

"I had gone through training and everything. And I was pitching," she said. "Then out of nowhere my back started hurting."

A week before tryouts, Backe went for X-rays, which detected a crack. Subsequently, a bone scan was taken, then an MRI. From the MRI, it was determined the crack had not occurred recently, and that she was suffering from a condition called spondylolisthesis.

"I couldn't do anything," she said. "I couldn't touch a ball.''

Backe isn't sure staying away from the softball field was any less painful than her back. But she is sure that in her case, time healed the wound. By late April, the pain had begun to subside, and after getting clearance from the doctor, she made another visit to Holst's office.

"She came up to me and said the doctors said it was OK for her to come out," he said. "I said, 'Great. But you have to try out just like everybody else. And if you make the team, great.' ''

Where she would play was another matter. Jenner had not only firmly established herself as the No. 1 pitcher on the team, but one of the best in the Chicago area. And she usually finished what she started. Holst suggested Backe try out for another position.

The place was left field. It would prove to be quite an adventure.

Even with the hearing aids, Backe can't pick up distant conversation with any consistency. She didn't have any problems catching fly balls, but listening for directions on where to throw the ball and which cutoff man to aim at, and changing her positioning for each particular batter made for some confusion.

"Sometimes they yelled pretty loud. They were like, 'Backe! Go back!' waving their arms and all of that," Backe said, laughing. "It was definitely more difficult than pitching, because of the distance and the sound travel, which was crazy.

"But I loved playing the outfield," Backe said. "And she (Jenner) was doing such a great job I just thought I'd sit back and relax and play some outfield. I accepted the fact that I couldn't pitch. Jenner was good."

Backe returned to her first love — pitching — last summer with her 18-and-under travel team, the Illinois Eagles. She had a very productive season, with the Eagles finishing second at a national tournament in Minnesota.

Then came the 2003 high school season. Backe took the reins of a team that wasn't returning a lot of veterans and rode it to great heights.

The highlights included victories over ranked teams such as Richards, Marian Catholic and Lincoln-Way East, and going undefeated in the SICA East, a feat only Thornwood had previously achieved in the last two decades.

She'll attend Barry University in Miami, Fla., on a softball scholarship. Her high rank in H-F softball history is assured.

"Oh, she'll be right up there,'' Holst said. "She's only really had one year as a varsity starter to make her record, so there will be other girls with more wins. But she's pretty much handled everything she's faced.

"Sarah did some of her best pitching under adverse conditions, when she didn't have her best stuff, or an error had been made, or there had been a bad call from an umpire. She was able to overcome that and perform at a high level.

"That's what separates the strong from the chaff."

Copyright 2003, Digital Chicago Inc.