Harris' Comeback One For The Ages
By David Breidenbach, Correspondent
May 24, 2014, 20:35
Amber Harris delivers a pitch during the Colonials' game last week.
COLONIAL HEIGHTS—To call Amber Harris’ return to the circle in softball a miracle borders on understatement. After a stellar pitching career at Colonial Heights Middle School finishing her final season there with only one loss, the Colonial Heights Varsity Softball team’s managers were eager to get her on the team. Everything was looking just peachy, and then Amber’s trials began.
“It was Labor Day weekend and she wrecked on a four wheeler,” Greg Harris said. “The four-wheeler was in bad shape, but she was only complaining about her burned ankle.”
The next weekend, Amber’s travel team, the Richmond Ruckus, was playing in the American Softball Association (ASA) Hall of Fame qualifier. They were in process of beating a team they had not beaten before, when Amber showed Greg and her coach Jason Ellis that her hand was swelling. She continued to pitch, but between innings soaked her hand in a bucket of cold water. They won the qualifier and earned a berth at the ASA Championships in Oklahoma City. It should have been a great time for Amber and the team, but it turned out to be the beginning of four years of angst and misery for the teen.
“It was very frustrating. The only thing that really got me through were my friends and family and God really. I confided in the book of Job and all the trials that he went through and how it finally came around and he got paid back 10 times over,” Amber said.
While the good book helped ease the passage of time, Amber still had a tough row to hoe. It started with X-rays and a diagnosis of a growth plate problem. The put a brace on her wrist to help and she didn’t pitch anymore that fall. In the spring, when the temperature was under 55 degrees, they noticed that her hand would swell and turn blue. Obviously something wasn’t right.
“Amber complained about her shoulder. She played in ninth grade, but didn’t have to pitch,” Greg said. “As it warmed up, things got better but it still noticeably not right.”
Off to see another doctor. This time, the diagnosis was thoracic outlet syndrome. Back to operating room for a little surgery, and more rehab through the winter. When the she started to get ready for the next season, she was experiencing should problems. When that became chest pains in the summer, the Harris’ took Amber to see Dr. Geoffrey Higgs, with Advanced Orthopaedics. They had been seeing other good doctors, but they had been subscribing physical therapy and perhaps a shoulder “clean up.” But when Higgs looked at her shoulder, he was convinced that surgery was necessary and he basically reconstructed her shoulder.
With the shoulder fixed other problems cropped up. Amber was losing weight, she dropped 50 pounds and her parents searched out other doctors. Then it was, gall bladder surgery and a torn esophagus. While they felt things were getting better, that year during basketball season she complained that her hands and feet were getting numb. Then came the migraines. When Amber complained that her teeth felt like they were shifting, they had finally hit on the final symptom. But the doctors were diagnosing crazy things, Greg said. So her parents took matters into their own hands. They took a look at the MRIs. Her wisdom teeth didn’t line up right, they thought.
“We had to push to get her to the right doctors. (We learned to) never accept what the doctors say first time around; if you don’t like what they say find another doctor. It truly is a miracle. Her shoulder surgeon felt she could go out there again, but after everything else she had been through he thought she would never come back,” Amber’s mom Kathe Harris said.
Off they went to the dentist, who said they had talked about having the teeth removed. Off to Dr., Stephen Brown, an oral surgeon.
“The next week she had it done,” Greg said. “Then … her hand isn’t tingling any more. A week later and no more headaches.”
Last fall, Amber played basketball for the Colonials varsity team. It was her first time back playing varsity ball since 9th grade, nearly four years. Then came spring, and softball beckoned. Despite some initial angst, Amber was feeling pretty good.
“I was so upset after my first surgery thinking it would fix everything and it didn’t. I got mad at everything, even softball. But softball is my stress relief. There is no other feeling like there is when I am on the mound,” Amber said.
But that feeling had been missing for four years and most of her doctors doubted she would ever play sports again, no less be a star. Even her varsity softball coach Chris Martin had his doubts.
“When she left us her freshman year and the doctors said she would never play again, I was sad. It was like ‘Here’s this great little ball player who will never play again.’ I still say a little prayer every night that it’s all gone and they have taken care of everything,” Martin said.
Feeling a lot better now, Amber started the long road back. She pitched wherever she could, outside or in a warehouse. Anywhere she could go to get some practice. Needless to say, such a recovery takes a lot of hard work and determination. And if nothing else, Amber was determined.
The cold weather at the start of the season held her back a little. And then in the season opening tournament, her parents noticed that her arm was rubbing during her pitching motion. The resulting bruise was a problem. Off to her pitching coach, Rita Lynn, who suggested a simple fix—an arm pad.
Still, Amber was rusty and lacked a bit of confidence in the early part of the season. She had great innings followed by so-so innings. The team lost a few close games that they might otherwise have won. But the pad seemed to do the trick, and the real test came against perennial softball power Dinwiddie.
“Dinwiddie was the game. After the first batter she knew she could do this,” Kathe said.
Against the Lady Generals, Amber started off by striking out the leadoff batter. That single batter gave her enough assurance as she finished with a 6-0 shutout in a complete game.
“The first Prince George game I was all over the place and really felt I wasn’t supposed to be back on the mound again. But when Dinwiddie came around, I struck out the first batter and I knew I was back then,” Amber said.
So perhaps it isn’t so surprising that the Colonials have been on a tear ever since. They have notched 13 wins in the past 14 games, led by Amber and Ashley Schoot, the pitcher that kept the Colonials going during the time Amber was suffering and recovering.
Along the way this season, Amber collected a 10-4 record and sports a phenomenal 1.33 earned run average. As of last Monday, she had 65 strikeouts and only 23 walks in about 75 innings pitched. One would think that the colleges would be out in force with offers. After all, softball is a pitcher’s game, really. But because she had disappeared from the ranks for four years, the colleges don’t seem to know about her. As a result, she expects to attend school at James Madison University next fall.
“I’m not sure if I will walk on, but I will play club softball. I’m never going to give softball up,” she said.
No one really knows what can happen this year. It’s still possible that some passing college coach may hear about Amber, and she will get some visibility in the Conference 25 Tournament and playing travel ball. But for now, Amber is happy just begin back on the mound and spinning pitches.
“It’s just been a blessing. I get teary eyed just thinking about it. Her being able to be out there, I just have to thank all the doctors,” Kathe said.