By March, coach Joe Ausanio’s softball team was 19 games into their season and were gearing up for revenge in the MAAC. The season was suddenly over before they had their chance at redemption. As quickly as the script of those two sentences flipped, the coronavirus swept the nation and the sports world, wiping calendars clean, emptying fields and dugouts for who knows how long.
2020 was supposed to be a special year for this talented team, with five all-conference athletes returning, records within reach of being broken, and most importantly, another opportunity to win a championship in striking, er, swinging distance. It was so promising because of what happened in 2019.
After finishing the 2019 regular season with a record of 34-21 and earning the top seed in the MAAC, Marist softball scratched, clawed, and ripped opponents apart until there were two teams remaining in tournament play.
The other team was none other than Monmouth, who had been crowned conference champion the year before, while making it to the finals the past four seasons. Having bested Monmouth twice in the regular season, Marist felt that this was their chance.
Fast forward to the playoffs and they would come face-to-face with the behemoth of Monmouth in the second round. Marist held a 4-3 lead on the Hawks going into the bottom of the seventh inning, when a two-run homer from Monmouth would send Marist to the elimination bracket. Later on that same day they would suit back up and give everything they had left in them. A 5-4 victory against Niagara earned them another shot at Monmouth and a chance for their fourth title since 2006. Four Monmouth home runs and seven innings later, the Foxes fell 6-1 and watched as Monmouth hoisted a consecutive MAAC title.
This year’s preseason only dumped fuel on the fuel that is the rivalry between the two teams. The coaches poll chose Marist to finish second in the conference behind, who else, but Monmouth, trailing them by nine votes. Additionally, five of the Red Foxes were preseason All-MAAC selections.
One of them was senior outfielder Ali Milam.
Since her career began at Marist, Ali Milam has made pitchers think twice about even throwing the ball over the plate. Last season, Milam was walked more times (28) than she struck out (23). In 2019, she practically led the team in every batting statistic: doubles, home runs, RBIs, total bases, you name it. Her sophomore season, Milam tied Janna Korak for the most RBIs in a single season (54). Entering her senior year, Milam was on her way to further etching herself in school history. Holding places in the top ten of multiple categories, she had her eyes set on the school’s all-time record for home runs… plus a little more.
She started the 2020 campaign needing 11 homers to tie the record of 33 in a career. Milam’s specialty is driving in runs, so she needed just 34 more RBIs to hold that record. It’s not greed; try greatness. Through the team’s first 19 games she was well on her way to cementing herself as one of the greatest hitters of all time at Marist. Nine RBIs and two home runs brought her closer to greatness when she and her teammates were dealt a pitch no one could have seen coming.
“It started getting real when Marist started sending students home from Italy,” Milam said, recalling when she first started to worry about the spread of the virus and the impact it could potentially have. “They’re sending people home, canceling their classes… what’s going to happen next?” she wondered. Also in the forefront of her mind was her personal juggling act, balancing the responsibilities of being a Division I athlete mid-season, finishing her digital photography major, maintaining an internship, and graduating from Marist.
Talk about the virus flooded across campus. Spring break approached with students unaware of the toll COVID-19 would eventually have on the academic year as they awaited the news from administration. The team was ready to travel to their next away game when Ausanio ordered a team meeting.
Milam and the other players could have guessed what they’d be chatting about.
“I remember all of us were sitting in the hall of fame room waiting for everyone to gather, when we see the baseball team walking out of their meeting crying.” Any hope of the gathering being an ordinary team meeting was abandoned. Suddenly the news sank in. “Wow, our season’s over,” she said. “That’s it.”
The emotions hit hard. The meeting was one of the last times for the foreseeable future that they would all be together as a team, as a family. “To be honest, I blacked out when I heard the season was cancelled,” she recalled. Sitting next to fellow senior, Claire Oberdorf, the two broke down, recognizing that their last season together was over. Milam’s first year on the team was also assistant coach Morgan Royer’s first year. The bond of coming into the program together helped build Milam into the amazing player she had become. That chance to finish what they had started was abruptly gone.
Most Marist students have been able to return home to their families, and have had over a month to adjust to the new lifestyle of quarantine and online classes. Ali Milam, a native of Goleta, California, hasn’t been able to go home yet. While waiting for updates on her internship possibly being canceled, the circumstances of coronavirus had gone from bad to worse. Milam’s family decided it was safer for her to find a friend to stay with, rather than traveling home. Milam quickly found a temporary home with Marist alumni and former second baseman, Brandi Coon, and her family. Reflecting a togetherness that the team is proud to uphold, Coon wasn’t the only one to reach out to help Milam. “Brandi asked me to come stay with her, and so did Caroline Baratta, Nicole Teague… everyone was like ‘come stay at my house, you don’t have to go anywhere.”
Being in the household of a former fellow player has given Milam the chance to still get a piece of softball that she is missing. In quarantine, they have found several ways to stay active and to keep their minds off of the coronavirus. “Walking, running, rowing machine, elliptical whatever I can do, she said. “Brandi, thank gosh… she has a glove, too, so we are throwing.”
Despite being apart from each other, the team tries to remain as close as ever. They have been able to stay in touch and keep the positive energy they showed on the diamond. Milam said that Ausanio got them all together on a Webex one day, “and it was great just to see everyone’s faces.”
In a time of world uncertainty, Ali Milam has a huge decision to make on what her next step will be. She has already received an offer to return to the team to get that final season of softball, but will have to decide between that and moving on to start her career. “[Every senior] is worried about getting a job in this economy,” she said. She also noted that Ausanio mentioned getting her master’s while playing one more year. That would certainly give her the time to shatter those records.
For Milam, who has played softball as long as she can remember, the ending was almost too unexpected to actually be the end. “I’ve been thinking, ‘I can’t go out like that,’” she said. But it has given her a bit of perspective, too. The adage tells you to play every game like it’s your last, right? “This year has shown it can be taken away so fast, so you have to make the most of it.”
Time will tell what that means for Milam’s future. The future safety of previous records, too.
Edited by Will Bjarnar
Header photo from Marist Athletics