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Roller Coaster Career For Arizona's Chambers

May 19, 2011

by Sarah Kezele

For almost a decade, former UCLA star Stacey Nuveman has held the NCAA record for home runs in a career.

Stacie Chambers of Arizona is ready to change that.

The Glendale, Ariz., native has slugged 85 home runs in an Arizona uniform, and needs just six more to break Nuveman's record. But getting there has been no walk in the ballpark for the fifth-year Wildcat.

On Oct. 14, 2006, Chambers hit her first collegiate home run in the first game of a preseason doubleheader at Arizona's Rita Hillenbrand Memorial Stadium. The ball flew into the netting protecting the video board behind the right field fence, something that hadn't been done since the board was installed in 2005.

"It was awesome," Chambers said. "That was really cool for me."

But her freshman season would come to an end less than two hours later when she fouled off a pitch, which hit her directly in the face, knocking her unconscious as blood gushed from her mouth. After four months of severe mood swings, a new smoking and drinking habit, and a lack of focus in the classroom—all out of the ordinary for Chambers—a local neuropsychologist diagnosed her with frontal lobe damage. Chambers wasn't allowed to touch a softball for almost a year.

After months of cognitive speech therapy, Chambers rejoined the team as a designated player in August 2007. But her teammates were not as excited about Chambers' return as she was.

"They didn't think anything was wrong other than, 'Oh, you had a concussion,'" Chambers said. "Even though I looked OK physically, mentally, my brain was still injured and it took time to heal. They didn't understand that there was something wrong with me."

Chambers, head coach Mike Candrea and Chambers' doctors held a meeting with the team to explain what had happened and how the injury affected her.

"After that, everyone was really close, really supportive," Chambers said. "Everybody was on the same page as me, understanding and willing to help me and doing whatever they had to do to get me back on the level I should be performing at. That support gave me that confidence to know, 'Alright, I can do this.'"

And so began the season Chambers called "the roller coaster year." Some games, she was racking up her RBI total, finishing with 49 on the year. Other games, she added to her strikeout sum of 45—the second-worst number on the team. But she still managed to send off 15 home runs and finish the season with a .296 batting average.

"It was a struggle for me, to say the least," Chambers said.

For most of the 2009 season, that struggle would be but a distant memory. In "the year of confidence," Chambers smacked 31 home runs and 96 RBI, leading the nation in both categories at season's end. She assumed the role of starting catcher and tallied 12 fewer strikeouts despite 18 additional at-bats. She also garnered numerous awards and accolades, including two Pac-10 Player of the Week honors, USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Week, first-team All-Conference and was one of 10 finalists for the USA Softball Player of the Year award.

But when the Wildcats faced Stanford in the Super Regional that May, she encountered another road block.

"I would literally be swinging at pitches that were in the dirt," Chambers said. "I'd be like, 'No, I swear it's up here!' And [my teammates] were like, 'No, it's not.'"

Chambers had developed vision problems related to her brain injury two seasons prior. She was starting to see double and struggled to track the ball properly, leading to a 1-8 showing at the plate over the first two games in Palo Alto.

"It was just frustrating because it was like, 'This is not how I hit and I know it, so I have to do something about it,'" Chambers said.

After a first-round exit from the Women's College World Series, she went home to Glendale, Ariz., to work out and rest.

When the 2010 preseason rolled around, Chambers started vision therapy. She met with Dr. Tanya Polec a couple times a week to do various exercises, computer programs and eye stretches geared toward hitting and catching. Her junior season would be the "back-to-work year."

Chambers slowly saw results, going yard nine times in seven weeks of non-conference play. Her production remained stagnant once she faced Pac-10 opponents, hitting seven home runs in five weeks.

Chambers said she expected that she would get fewer pitches to hit after a record-setting 2009 season. But when she wasn't being intentionally walked, she still struggled to connect the bat with the ball. Fifty of her at-bats resulted in strikeouts that season—the highest count of her college career. Chambers' futility at the dish led to frustration, which led to even more physical—and mental—struggle.

"I have high expectations for myself, just like any other player," she said. "And when I don't meet my expectations I get frustrated. When you get frustrated or stressed you get tense. And it's not just your muscles that get tense; it's everything in your body. So the more frustrated I get, the worse my eyes are going to be."

She went 1-12 over a span of five postseason games as a result of that frustration. But after a series of pep talks from coach Mike Candrea, Chambers' confidence was back. She belted four home runs in the Women's College World Series, including two scores in the final championship game against UCLA. She finished the season with 21 home runs and a .360 batting average.

"Coach always says, 'A lot of the game of softball is the six inches between your ears,'" Chambers said. "I hear that from him all the time. Obviously I have physical talent and I've shown that, but if my mental game isn't up, then I'm going to show that, too."

Her mental acrobatics carried into the 2011 season, her "mental year" and final season as a Wildcat. Much like her first full season, her performance this year has been consistently inconsistent. She leads the team with 18 home runs and 66 RBI, but is also first in strikeouts. Her .288 batting average is sub-par for Chambers, yet she still has a share of the Arizona career home runs record and is within reach of the NCAA record.

"There have been nights this year after the games where I'm so frustrated that I just break into tears," Chambers said. "I'm like, 'I'm working hard. I'm trying. What am I doing?' So this year, my big thing is staying mentally tough and continuing to work at it. As long as I'm working at it, something good will come out of it."

Her most recent effort came the week of Arizona's final homestand against Cal in mid-May. Chambers worked with Candrea for hours each day to open up her stance to accommodate her ongoing vision problems, and to start her swing earlier to eliminate quick and violent movement. 

The extra work paid off when she blasted a three-run homer May 13 to reach 85 career home runs, putting her next to former Wildcats Laura Espinoza and Leah Braatz in the school record books.

Chambers said she feels "really good" about her current mental and physical state, and her timing couldn't be better as the Wildcats begin the hunt for a ninth national championship this weekend.

"I feel like I'm unstoppable as long as I make solid contact," she said.

Although Chambers is more concerned about helping the team win and advance in the postseason, only six home runs separate her from the NCAA record.

"I try not to think about it because it just puts more pressure on myself," she said. "It's a huge honor for me just to be on that list with all those people. Looking back on everything I've been through, I have no complaints. But anything is possible."

No. 8 Arizona takes on Harvard on the Wildcats' home field Friday at 6:30 p.m. PT.