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updated: 6/6/2013 8:54 PM

Striking back at adversity

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  • Downers Grove North pitcher Elaine Heflin is the honorary captain of the DuPage County all-area softball team.

       Downers Grove North pitcher Elaine Heflin is the honorary captain of the DuPage County all-area softball team.
    Paul Michna | Staff Photographer

  • Elaine Heflin of Downers Grove North on the mound during the Class 4A Neuqua Valley sectional semifinals softball game Wednesday.

       Elaine Heflin of Downers Grove North on the mound during the Class 4A Neuqua Valley sectional semifinals softball game Wednesday.
    Paul Michna | Staff Photographer

  • Downers Grove North pitcher Elaine Heflin for possible All-Area caption story

       Downers Grove North pitcher Elaine Heflin for possible All-Area caption story
    Paul Michna | Staff Photographer

 
 

Elaine Heflin had reason to cry or ask why.

As dominant as her four years at Downers Grove North were, they were also marked by heartbreak and injury.

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She did not let it define her.

Recovering from a debilitating back injury, Heflin returned to the mound better than ever.

That setback overcome, another hit first game this spring. Heflin and Downers Grove North lost her co-ace Dale Ryndak to an ACL tear running the bases.

Powering through like her 65 mph heater, towering over adversity with her 5-foot-11 frame, Heflin's greatness willed the Trojans forward.

In a year where truly dominant pitching was a rare commodity around the area, Heflin stood out.

She went 17-5 with a 0.96 ERA, struck out an area-best 267 batters, tossed 10 shutouts and threw 4 no-hitters -- two of them coming against Class 4A semifinalist York.

Two of the shutouts came in regionals. Behind Heflin, Downers Grove North erased the bitterness of regional final losses the last two years by advancing to the school's first sectional final since 1979.

"I'm proud of her," said Glenbard West coach Mary McGrane, who starred at Downers North in high school. "Seeing a kid get hurt, just to have the stamina and the confidence and the mindset to come back stronger, I give her a lot of credit and praise. She deserves everything she gets."

For this Downers Grove North senior Elaine Heflin is the Daily Herald's DuPage County All-Area softball captain. She is the third Trojan so honored, joining 1998 captain McGrane and 1999 captain Krisi Rossi.

A big first year, a long recovery

Mark Magro knew he had something special coming through the pipeline.

When Heflin was a sixth-grader, she hit a ball out of Downers Grove's Doerhoefer Park at a summer camp.

"I was like, 'Who are you, kid?'" remembered Magro, coach at Downers Grove North.

It was Heflin's golden right arm that made its long-term impact.

As a freshman throwing 61 mph, she struck out 20 of 21 batters against Prospect. and went 11-2 with a 0.92 ERA.

In a game against Glenbard West that spring, though, she suffered an oblique injury that sent her to the ER. She pitched sparingly the rest of the year. Her mechanics were thrown off. Compensating for the injury put stress on her back, and she felt discomfort that summer.

She went to a doctor, and the diagnosis came back that she had a hairline fracture of the L5 vertebrae.

Heflin was fortunate that the vertebrae did not slip forward, which would have required surgery. But she was forced to wear a hard shell brace running from her shoulder to her tailbone for nine months. Eventually she took steroids and lidocaine to relieve the pain.

Activities as simple as lifting a leg to change clothes were a struggle.

"It was shooting pain," she said, "like somebody was trying to stab me in the back."

Her doctor reassured Heflin that she would play again, but her mind wandered to fears otherwise.

"The day my doctor called me I cried all night," she said. "I thought I was never going to play again, was never going to be the same. I was really scared. It was an emotional roller coaster."

Heflin returned to the mound for one game the spring of her sophomore year against Hinsdale Central, but she was hardly dominant.

She still didn't have all her speed back that summer pitching for the New Lenox Lightning Gold, but she was effective. While bigger colleges who once recruited her dropped off after the injury, UIC stuck with Heflin and she committed there as a junior.

"I took the injury as a blessing in disguise," Heflin said. "Their coach was always there for me. It was a sign that I should be going there. I came out a better person and grateful for the sport I play. When you don't play for a year, you want to do anything -- you want to touch the ball."

'She looks like she's on top of you'

Heflin returned in a big way her junior year, going 16-5 with a 0.36 ERA and 244 strikeouts.

To further strengthen her upper body and core, Heflin in August joined Get Fast Sports and Speed Training in Willowbrook, to train to "get in the best shape of her life."

She needed to be when Ryndak went down. Instead of splitting up games, Heflin had to go the distance.

"I had to go in with my mindset that my body can go the full seven innings," Heflin said. "There was no doubt that I could, but it was definitely tough."

Heflin left no doubt. No matter the opponent, she racked up huge strikeout numbers and usually wins. Three of her five losses came by 2-1 scores. In the rain at Glenbard West, she struck out 18. When she allowed a homer to Benet's Stephanie Abello in sectionals, it was the first Heflin had given up in high school. Heflin, who has hit 68 on the gun, was still throwing 64 in the seventh inning of that game.

She put up numbers mostly unheard of since the mound was moved back to 43 feet from home plate three years ago.

"It was almost like we were playing from 40 feet again, that's how much she dominated," McGrane said. "Our game plan against her was just try to make contact. That's how much power she had."

At near 6 feet tall she also struck an intimidating pose. Heflin has heard that her presence is "scary" and figures that's a good thing even if it doesn't describe her personality.

"When she comes off the mound, she has to be throwing from 37 feet," McGrane said. "It probably looks like she's on top of you."

A 3-2 loss to Downers Grove South was a tough way to finish, but Heflin was able to put the season in perspective.

"I think the sting of that loss is always going to be there," she said, "but we had an amazing year. We made history at Downers Grove North, and that says a lot for us."

Follow Josh on Twitter @jwelge96

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