Seems like a crazy question to ask a student athlete, especially during this crazy time.
“You’re OK with it all being over, aren’t you?”
Especially one who is a senior. So many of them lost something this spring they can never get back, that one last season on the field, or that chance to get their lives started with the satisfaction that their athletic careers ended comfortably on their terms. It’s difficult not to feel that pain, to not relate to something so completely out of one’s control ripping through everyone’s best-laid plans like a tornado.
Talk to Sarah Witte for a little while, though, and it’s easy to see just how different she is, just why her teammates and coaches came to revere her the way they did. It’s easy to see exactly why Marywood University bestowed its softball captain with one of its biggest honors in a year unlike any other for the athletic program.
Of course, she didn’t like that it ended with fears over the COVID-19 pandemic shutting down college sports nationwide. But she also knows that a couple more hits, even a few more victories, wouldn’t forge a legacy on the softball diamond any more significant to her than the one she looks back on now.
“I am OK with it being over, because I enjoyed my time,” Witte responded to the question. “I know that my time is up, and I need to step back and let the younger girls step up and take the reins of the program.
“We’ve had a great three full years, and this little season of a fourth, and I know I’d rather be happy with the memories that I had than be upset that it was over so soon.”
We talk so often about what sports are supposed to teach; what they’re supposed to mean. All too often, we end up limiting the scope to championships won and records set and too many other things that eclipse what sports look like when those lessons are learned the right way. More than anything, Witte is a prime example of a life in athletics well spent.
The former Wallenpaupack star battled through knee issues to build a solid career on the field at Marywood, for sure. She hit. 300 as a junior in 2019, ripped nine doubles as a sophomore and drove in 33 career runs. She hit her lone collegiate home run — a three-run shot to left-center — in the midst of a see-saw clash that helped Marywood deal the University of Scranton its first-ever loss at the then-new Magis Field in 2018.
There were nearly two dozen players on Marywood’s 2020 roster, but Witte may have been the most fundamentally sound player the Pacers had, head coach John Butash raved. That helped her to play just about every position on the diamond outside of pitcher and first base.
Witte’s contributions to the Pacers couldn’t be contained in a pile of numbers.
Earlier this month, Marywood honored Witte with its prestigious Dr. Mary Jo Gunning Award, which recognizes a senior who is “not necessarily the best athlete, highest scorer, or top grade point average, but has demonstrated an outstanding commitment to his or her team, Marywood University, and the community at large.”
She stayed active through softball teams and her home parish, Queen of Peace in Hawley, raising money and awareness throughout the communities in which she has lived for as long as she can remember.
She helped raise funds for the Special Olympics and Ronald McDonald House. She lined up with her teammates in the Turkey Trot and Jog For Jude and the Polar Bear Plunge. On her own, she worked to keep food pantries full and planned to help families in need during the holidays, all while maintaining grades strong enough to land her on the conference academic honor roll multiple times throughout her Marywood career.
But her giving ways extended into the dugout, as well. Dating back to her days playing travel softball, Witte has always seemed to find ways to garner a monicker she both accepts and lives: Team Mom.
Like most players, Witte carries an equipment bag with her to practices and games. Unlike many, she loads hers up with extra socks, extra hair ties, a spare pair of uniform pants, maybe even a jersey. If any of her teammates ever needed anything — a sounding board, a shoulder to cry on or something more concrete like a pair of socks for the game — she wanted to be the one to provide it.
As a senior, some of the freshmen players even graduated her from Team Mom status, lovingly referring to her as “Grandma.”
“I never really took my own feelings into account,” Witte said. “I always was more concerned with my teammates around me, making sure they were OK, be it if they were injured or if they were having a bad day. It’s about helping them out and being a good person that they can come to and know they can talk freely, and there’s no judgement.”
The NCAA is granting players who lost the 2020 spring season an extra year of eligibility, but Sarah Witte is a rare athlete who is gladly not taking it. There are reasons, she says. She has been playing with a partially torn ligament in her knee, she revealed, and she knows teammates and coaches cringe whenever she dives for a grounder. She does a little bit, too. She’s also focused on starting her career as a high school biology teacher.
Maybe more than anything, though, she looked at the juniors on her team and knew they were ready to lead the youngsters, that the program was in good hands. Her work there was done, and when your work is done, all that’s left for you to do is accept it and be thankful.
“It’s maturity. Maturity beyond her years,” Butash said. “It’s understanding that softball played a big part in her development as a person. It was a part of her high school and her college experience, but she knew it wasn’t the be-all, end-all. It was just a small part of it.”
Realizing that didn’t make it easier for Sarah Witte to walk away from softball. But it sure did make it easier to take the next step.