For a decade, Paige Pitlick’s garage has had two constants. There’s a turf mat from which she can practice pitching, and a hanging pad on the wall she can pitch into.

This winter, with Pitlick preparing for her final year of college softball, her dad wanted to know if it was finally safe to remove the equipment from the garage; maybe sell them to someone who could use them. But Pitlick hesitated.

“I don’t know,” she told him. “Let’s just keep it in there.”

She had no idea how good of a decision that would turn out to be.

In March, the NCAA cancelled all remaining competition due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Schools around the country, including Minnesota Crookston, quickly moved to online classes and instructed students to leave campus. So Pitlick’s back at home in Jordan, Minn., where she’s doing her best to make peace.

Pitlick loves being busy. An essential worker, she works 15 minutes away in Shakopee as a pharmacy technician at CVS. She has her online schoolwork to take care of, too. When she’s not working or studying, she works out often — if the weather permits, she tries to run outside (she ran cross country for the Golden Eagles last fall), but she’s lucky enough to have her mom’s treadmill and weight rack to use too. And of course, there’s the mat and pad in the garage.

The NCAA granted Division II spring-sports athletes an extra year of eligibility on March 20. But Pitlick, who’s been accepted to the University of Minnesota College of Pharmacy for graduate school, won’t be taking advantage of it.

She still goes into the garage every day to pitch, though. She thinks she’ll stop eventually, considering her competitive career is over. But for now, pitching is her coping mechanism.

“I don’t think I’ve gone through the emotions to get over it yet,” she says. “It just seems like summer came early and we just went home for summer break and we’re getting back in the fall and things are going to be normal. I think one of these days, it will eventually sink in. Right now, it’s fine, and I’ll make peace with it, but I don’t know.

“I don’t know if it’s something you get over. It’s something you move forward from.”

***

The 2020 Minnesota Crookston softball season had a new character about it: excitement.

The Golden Eagles, moribund for their entire history, won a program-record 13 games last season under first-year head coach Travis Owen. If they were to build on it this season, much of it would have to come by the right arm of Pitlick, their most experienced pitcher.

And for the first 16 games of the season, Pitlick did everything required to fulfill the lofty expectation — ace.

UMC run-ruled Bemidji State, 9-0, in its season opener. Pitlick went all six innings, striking out 10. She went the distance against William Jewell, giving up one earned run in a 6-2 win. She struck out 12 against UMary and 13 against Pittsburg State, breaking Minnesota Crookston’s all-time strikeout record in the process.

The Golden Eagles were set to travel to Florida on Mar. 14 for an eight-game swing. They were 6-10, and Pitlick, with a 2.24 ERA and 61 strikeouts in 43.2 innings, was in the middle of far and away the best season a UMC pitcher has ever had.

“She’s just an incredible competitor,” Owen said. “We figured she'd have a good shot at (the record) but it wasn't going to be a guarantee, and it’s even that much more amazing she was able to do it 16 games into the season.”

And just like that it was over.

The Ivy League was the first organization to cancel spring sports, at which point Pitlick had her doubts. That was on Wednesday, March 11. On Thursday, UMC’s Florida trip was cancelled. “We talked like it was still okay,” she said. Of course, that was only the beginning.

In the immediate aftermath, Pitlick had a strong support system. Her family back home in Jordan. Her Golden Eagle teammates, who had “so much to prove” and looked well on their way to proving it. Her old club softball teammates, many of whom are now seniors at rival NSIC schools, who all understood exactly what Pitlick was going through.

“You find comfort in numbers,” she said. “You’re not the only one that feels sad, it happened to everybody. … You find comfort in them and you all understand the bigger picture. It’s for our safety and it’s for everyone’s safety, but it doesn’t make it hurt any less.”

To boot, the pace at which news came in was hard to keep up with. On Friday, after the season was cancelled, Pitlick went back home, planning to recalibrate by talking to family. She thought she’d be able to come back to Crookston in a few days, preferring to be with her friends, hoping to “wait it out, see what happens.” Instead, she got an order to get her things from her dorm and move out on hours’ notice.

“Having to say those goodbyes and just having skipped all those lasts, it’s heartbreaking,” she said. “Maybe that's why I don’t feel like I have processed it, just because it’s been so rushed. It’s been hard, especially having everyone at home. I love my family, they’re awesome supporters, but they have their normal that they’re trying to bring here and I’m trying to bring my normal here and it clashes a lot. These next three weeks I hope go by quick.”

The significance of these next three weeks: sometime during them, the Golden Eagles’ season would have come to an end anyway.

Like any athlete, Pitlick had always known that end would come. So she’s planned for it since she was a freshman in college. That was about when her dreams of becoming a pharmacist crystallized.

Since then, her life has been a series of steps. She already has her apartment in Minneapolis chosen; the next step is getting her things there on time so she can easily transition into her classes. After that, she’ll earn her doctorate of pharmacology and work as an emergency room pharmacist after graduation.

That’s the plan, of course. That plan’s been unexpectedly pushed up, but Pitlick’s still hanging on to it as best she can. In a way, it’s the thing keeping her going.

“It’s just looking forward to the next step, and I feel that’s something I would have done (anyway),” she said. “Having that mentality is just continuing even though the season ended early.”

But, she admits, “there’ll be some emotional up and downs here in the coming weeks.”

***

Originally, Pitlick wanted to go into animal science. She enjoyed the science courses she took in high school, and she liked animals.

“But I learned that I like people more,” she said.

Pitlick looked into the medical field and began narrowing her options. She had two cousins who were pharmacists, and that interested her. She didn’t want to be a physician, but she still desired to have a relationship with patients. After talking to her cousins and having a couple job shadowing experiences in hospitals, she decided that pharmacy was the perfect balance.

She got her pre-requisites done at Minnesota Crookston. She set up her PharmCAS, the centralized application service for pharmacy schools. Last August, she received an interview invitation from the University of Minnesota, wanting her to interview on the Duluth campus (the Twin Cities and Duluth campuses offer the same programs, but placement is random). The interview was set for the weekend of Sept. 28 — the same time as homecoming.

“I’m like, ‘shoot,’ I really wanted to experience my senior year homecoming,” she said. “But obviously this only comes so often. I went, and then I hustled my rear end back to Crookston and made it to homecoming.”

Just over two weeks later, Pitlick was accepted. As one of the first people to be accepted and enroll, her application fees were waived.

It was as good a deal as Pitlick could have hoped for.

But when the NCAA’s decision to allow an extra year of eligibility came in, she couldn’t not think about it.

“It was probably an hour,” she said. “ … I have a plan, you know? Obviously plans change, but it’s not something that’s dire enough to change those plans.

“I definitely thought about it, because it’s not something I’m going to be able to do again. It’s just not — I don’t wanna say worth it, but it’s not in my cards to go back and get some more classes or a different major. I already have everything I need to go forward.”

Pitlick won’t miss a single Golden Eagle game next year, whether that be a live-stat broadcast or a stream. She’s thankful that the NCAA gave the extra year, especially for some of her teammates who don’t have post-graduation plans and still need to figure out how to move forward. But she herself is ready to move on.

“I don’t think I’d even let her come back if she wanted to, because that’s a really cool accomplishment,” Owen said. “She’s planning on moving on and getting ready for life.”

Might Pitlick ever wonder what could have been? The possibility of her leading a competitive Golden Eagle team on a run through the NSIC next season?

It would be risking her spot in pharmacy school, her fees being waived, her living situation set up already. Everything is perfectly laid out for her already. She knows she won’t regret her decision and says so clearly. It’s too soon to think about anyway, what with a global pandemic raging that makes it hard to think about anything else — and really, COVID-19 just makes her that much more ready to jump into the workforce and play her part.

But will she miss softball?

In December 2018, over winter break, Pitlick shadowed in the emergency room at North Hennepin. She loved the experience; in particular, the calmness of the setting followed by an emergency, a sudden burst of adrenaline. Everything happening all at once.

“I wouldn’t say it’s stressful, but it’s a high-risk environment, very fast-paced and intense,” she said. “I love that feeling. Kind of brings me back to a game-type setting.

“That’s what I wanna do.”

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