Jodi Meitl is still a year shy of adulthood, but the past few monthshave erased for good whatever youth remained for her to live.

In a more innocent time, Jodi was the ideal teen-ager. Articulate, outgoing, always mature beyond her age. In the classroom, she was attentive, energetic, quick-learning.

Then there was her favorite extracurricular workplace, the softball pitcher's mound. There, Jodi could turn another talented, more competitive side loose, often with remarkable results.

Her freshman year at Centennial High School stands as arguably the best ever by a newcomer in the county. Possessing uncommon poise, pitching smarts andan overpowering fastball, Jodi carried Centennial to the Class 2A state playoffs by winning 17 of 19 decisions, pitching five no-hitters and striking out a school-record 214 batters in 131 innings.

The foundation had been laid for a stupendous high school career. Jodi showed her mettle as a sophomore by overcoming a bout with strep throat and mononucleosis. Despite missing nearly half the season due to her illnesses, Jodi pitched Centennial into the playoffs again.

Her dreams of obtaining a college softball scholarship were more realistic than ever. Coming into her junior season this spring, Jodi pronouncedherself in the best shape of her life. She had mastered her pitches like never before. She felt she was approaching a new peak.

Fate had other, cruel ideas. On the morning of March 1 -- ironically, the first day of softball practice -- Jodi and two close friends, Andrea Barlow and Theresa Tadros, headed to school in a Honda Accord. Jodi sat in the front passenger seat. Theresa sat in back, while Andrea drove.

"It was the best day. It was beautiful outside," Jodi says. "Wewere all in the car, and we were in the best mood. I was wearing my favorite outfit. I was ready. Softball was starting that day." Her voice trails off. "It was just the best day."

It happened so fast. Andrea pulled the car out of Waterford Drive, intending to cross Centennial Lane and enter the school parking lot. The girls never made it.A pickup truck traveling north on Centennial Lane slammed into the driver's side of the Honda. The ambulances and shock trauma helicopters came. The school was thrown into a state of shock.

Two days later, Andrea died of massive head injuries. Theresa escaped with minor injuries. Jodi found herself in the hospital with a broken pelvis, a shattered tailbone, a fractured skull, an injured eye socket and a concussion.

Jodi, who hardly remembers the accident, recalls the daysimmediately following it as a blur. She pleaded with the doctors to let her attend Andrea's funeral. She showed up in a wheelchair, in a "severely drugged state that made the whole thing seem like it was five seconds long."

A week later, Jodi came home to a life turned upside down.

Her best friend since fifth grade was gone forever. Shecouldn't get around without crutches or a walker. Tutors from schoolbegan coming to her Ellicott City home to help her keep up with her schoolwork. Therapists came to help her cope with the physical pain and the nightmares that continue to dog her. Softball, of course, was out of the question.

Jodi took her first major step back in early April, when she returned to school and rejoined the softball team as a first-base coach.

"That was the hardest part, having to sit there and watch every game," Jodi says. Sometimes, she couldn't do that. Watching the sport that had been her passion for six years was occasionally too much to ask.

The next step was a huge one. Around noon June 1, Jodi's doctor cleared her to pitch again. Four hours later, she threw for 45 minutes in 100-degree heat at Centennial.

Jodi, eager to pitch in a game again, quickly rejoined the Tangerine Machine -- an Anne Arundel County fast-pitch team that she has played on for several years.

Amazingly, Jodi took the mound June 2. But there would be no miracles in her first start. The three-month layoff had zapped her velocity and her stamina, and when she failed to retire a batter in the second inning, Tangerine coach Tom Connolly had no choice but to pull her.

Since then, Jodi has made steady progress. She pitched six innings in a 5-4 loss in her second start, then came back strong with seven strong innings (six hits, two earned runs, two walks, two strikeouts) in her third start.

The Tangerine Machine is dueto leave today for the Colorado Classic, a 12-day tournament featuring 43 teams from 11 states and Canada.

"With every week that goes by, the quickness is coming back, and her control has improved greatly since she started," Connolly said. "Jodi has a lot of ground to cover, and she is covering it."

Jodi's confidence has come a long waysince June 2. That day, after her discouraging debut, she cried during the ride home with her father, John, and considered giving up softball.

"I was really discouraged about having to start over again. It was one of the times where I didn't want anything to do with it (softball) anymore," she says.

"I didn't understand why I always hadto compete for something I already had, then have it taken away. ButI can't imagine myself not playing and not working as hard as I can to get a scholarship. I woke up the next morning, and everything was fine."

Some days, Jodi feels fine. Most days, though, she finds herself sorting through the feelings that have gripped her in the accident's aftermath. Her parents have notice an anger in her they had never seen. Jodi's attention span has suffered in school. Although she is on target to graduate on time next year, schoolwork has been a struggle.

Through it all, Jodi recognizes she is a different person because of the tragedy. She has always felt older. And she isn't sure she iscomfortable with that.

"To this day, I feel very cheated, because I never got a chance to get over it (Andrea's death)," Jodi says. "I didn't go through the natural grieving process. I was never by myself to think about how I should feel or what was going on. As soon as I got home, people were always here.

"I didn't get to the gravesite until a month and a half after the accident," she says. "By the time I was ready to start dealing with it, everybody else was over itand they didn't want to go through it again. And that was like starting over again.

"It's changed me a lot. With this happening and gaining so much more experience through it, I kind of feel out of placenow. I feel so far ahead of other people," she adds.

"It makes meseem different. I feel like I should be out of high school. Why can't I just act like I'm 17? Life would be so much easier. But it's not that way."

John Meitl has been Jodi's biggest fan since she began pitching. He has been there to catch her pitches in the backyard. He and his wife, Claire, have spent countless nights this spring holdingJodi while she cried. He sees Jodi as having turned an emotional corner, but he also sees his only daughter forever changed.

"Many times I look at her and I want my little girl back," John says. "She hasa giggle that I love to hear and she went for months without doing it. It wasn't until she was on the ball field with her friends that I heard it again.

"Every day that goes by I see a few more smiles. We have more of those long conversations we used to have," he says.

"But all in all, she's not that innocent 17-year-old kid anymore. Her outlook has changed. She's learned hard lessons too early. What she's gone through, nobody should have to go through. I can think of better ways for a girl to grow up."

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