Every time Jodi Meitl throws a pitch for the Centennial Eagles this spring, an inspirational story gets better.
Each time we watch her walk to the mound to begin another game or another inning and start off another helpless batter with a nasty fastball or a knee-buckling changeup, we can't see there is more on Meitl's shoulders than the fate of her undefeated, playoff-bound softball team. All we see is this pretty, bright, confident young woman throwing smoke again.
Life is good these days. Jodi is a month shy of graduation. She's enjoying the benefits that come with being a senior, like last week's "Senior Takeover Day" and the upcoming prom.
She's about to win her second softball Player of the Year honor. She dreams about leading Centennial to a state championship in three weeks. How many kids can even think about capping their high school careers this way?
Jodi is not your typical senior, and not merely in the way she wows us with her exceptional blend of poise, power and control on the pitcher's mound.
She teaches us a compelling lesson each time she marches out there.
It's hard to believe that 14 months ago, Jodi wondered if she would be in this position. You watch her throw a shutout against a terrific Glenelg team like she did on Wednesday to extend her record to 11-0, and again you can't believe 14 months ago, she was a physical and emotional wreck.
When a pickup truck crashed into the car in which she was riding on the way to school that March 1 -- the first day of softball practice, as cruel irony would have it -- Jodi's world changed.
Her injuries were frightening -- broken pelvis, fractured skull, shattered tailbone, injured eye socket, a concussion. But that RTC was window dressing compared to the most devastating blow.
The driver of the car, Andrea Barlow, Jodi's close friend since the fifth grade, never had a chance. Two days after the accident, Andrea died of massive head injuries.
After coming home from the hospital, Jodi spent the spring dealing with the scars, physical and emotional. Tutors helped her catch up on school work. Counselors helped her come to terms with Andrea's death. She spent several weeks virtually confined to her bed while her body began to mend. Nightmares about the accident hounded her. Her concentration eluded her. Her temper grew short.
"There are concentration problems and medical problems that still affect me," says Jodi, who thinks about Andrea often and visits her gravesite frequently. "It's hard for people to understand the permanent effects of the accident."
Jodi's softball comeback began last June 1, the day her doctor told her she could begin throwing again. So began another battle. While playing summer ball, Jodi realized how badly her strength had been depleted by the layoff. Her pitches lacked zip. She had no stamina. And the game wasn't fun anymore. She thought about quitting more than once.
"When I was recuperating, I really wanted to get back. But then June 1 came, and I was trying to throw and get strong again. Things weren't going as well as I thought they would, and I didn't want anything to do with it [softball]," she says. "But I couldn't stop. I watched some games, and I wanted to get back out there more."
It was only during the long winter of throwing two to three nights a week that Jodi could feel the power coming back.
Then came time for her final high school season. March 1. The first day of practice. Most kids who had missed a season due to injury would be doing cartwheels to get back on the field. Then again, most kids -- and adults, for that matter -- aren't forced to carry the excess baggage Jodi deals with every day. No March 1 will ever be the same for her.
March was a rough month. When the first anniversary of the accident hit her, she realized she needed to retreat. From school, from softball, from everything that reminded her of that day. She missed more than a week of school and softball practice.
Shortly after rejoining the team, the Eagles had their first scrimmage. Jodi pitched. Something clicked. "I remembered how much I enjoyed it," she says.
And the season has been one stirring headline after another since. Meitl pitched the first of five shutouts in her second game against Linganore. She pitched the first of two no-hitters two weeks later against Atholton. She has pitched every inning of Centennial's 11-0 season so far.
If any kid deserves a spring like this, it's Jodi. A perfect season and a state championship would round off a four-year run marked as much by perseverance as brilliance.
First, there was her phenomenal freshman season, which may never be topped. She went 17-2, threw five no-hitters, struck out 214 batters in 131 innings, led Centennial to the state playoffs and won Player of the Year honors.
Luck first turned against Jodi as a sophomore. She came down with several illnesses that year, and missed nearly half the season. Still, she went 11-2 and led the Eagles to the playoffs. But her misfortunes that year were a prelude to last year's tragedy.
Even now, in the midst of an amazing comeback and with a great future, Jodi still confronts the past. Softball doesn't mean as much. Neither does a softball scholarship, a goal she set years ago. She has already turned down several lucrative offers. She has no idea where she is going to school next year. At this point, that's not a high priority.
"A lot of things have changed since the accident. I'm not ready to go far away to school," she says. "Softball is not as important to my life, and that's good. We're a very close family. I have a lot of friends here who have helped me through it [the accident]. Emotionally, I don't think I'm ready to go away and start over yet."
In the meantime, Jodi intends to squeeze every drop out of what's left of her youth, starting with the next three weeks at one of her favorite places, the pitcher's mound. If you're a softball fan, do yourself a favor and check her out. She's quite a story.