There are few places in the world Annie Quick feels more comfortable than the softball field.
Watching a recent practice, the sophomore center fielder is poised and relaxed, even as coaches rip line drives and long looping pop flies in her direction. Her footwork positions her neatly in place under each ball and her casual catches stand in contrast to some of her teammates more timid, hesitant efforts.
She is not above coaching -- on this day her head coach repeatedly admonishes her about leaning into her throws, which whistle into the third baseman's glove and end with the resounding snap of leather on leather. But watch a few drills and it is clear center field, like center stage, is where the 15-year-old Quick was born to be.
The only thing oddly out of place is the massive knee brace crisscrossing her left leg. It's new this year, a token reminder of the journey the young athlete has taken over the past nine months to be here among her young but improving teammates on the Mount St. Mary Academy softball team.
"My body thinks it can do everything it could do before I got injured, but I know I'm not there yet," she said. A shrug. "I want to play."
Quick's natural presence on the field makes it easy to forget -- but hard to fathom -- that the injury suffered last summer put her sophomore year with the Belles into serious jeopardy. Playing in a tournament on Father's Day weekend, she fielded a hard but not overwhelming hit, then pivoted to whip the throw into the infield and turn the double play. Her cleats caught in the grass.
By the following Tuesday, she couldn't straighten her left knee due to what was soon diagnosed as a sprained medial collateral ligament, a torn meniscus and torn anterior cruciate ligament. Such injuries are not uncommon in female athletes, in fact their anatomical build makes them more predisposed to such damage than their male counterparts.
Her summer season was over, as was the prospect of volleyball and basketball she had played for the Belles as a freshman. All that remained was an August surgery date and long, painful physical therapy, therapy Quick was resolute about completing by January -- the first softball practice.
"The doctors told me there was a real possibility I was not going to play this year," she said. "They told me most people take a year or a little less to come back from this kind of injury."
All great athletes carry a chip on their shoulder, a demon driving them to outperform their own limits as much as best the competition. The youngest of Patrick and Tammy Quick's four athletic children, Annie was forever running to step out of the shadow of older siblings' accomplishments, especially her next eldest sister Perry, a senior at Little Rock Central High. In fast pitch softball she found the kind of stage on which she would establish her own identity in the family.
By the time she was a seventh grader, coaches were openly predicting she would play at the collegiate level. By her eighth grade year, her regular summer team qualified for the softball World Series. Coaches from around the area would routinely call and ask her to play on their teams any free weekend she had during the summer. It was just such a fill-in game where she got hurt.
She started every game for Mount St. Mary her freshman year, a year where the Belles suffered through ups and downs, but finished on the high note of qualifying for the state tournament for the first time in recent memory. Each loss stoked Quick's competitive fire, particularly if other teams displayed poor sportsmanship in the face of the young Belles' struggles.
The morning after the surgery -- day one of physical therapy -- her injury was now what mocked her, held her back, cast doubt on her future.
In retrospect, such doubts never stood a chance. They were dismantled from that first day, seven days a week, up to two hours a day. Driven by the school's trainer, Jeff Stotts, Quick swung away at her therapy with everything she had. Today she gives Stotts a good deal of the credit for her return, but in the moment he was a new demon, constantly hounding at her heels and always with the same question.
"When I didn't think I could do it, or I didn't want to do it, he'd always ask 'Do you want to play softball or not?'," she said. The answer was always the same.
Little by little, milestones would appear. It might be a new exercise conquered or a strength plateau pushed through. More substantial were the wins she could put a face to, like when her sister Perry offered to work out with her as part of her physical therapy.
"She couldn't keep up with me," Quick said, puffing with pride. "About halfway through, she had to quit."
On the first day of softball practice this January, Quick was cleared to participate in all facets but running. Walking into that first practice ranks was one of the highlights of her athletic life, perhaps only eclipsed by taking the field for the team's first game a few weeks later.
"I was so nervous in that game," she said and her play showed it as the first routine pop fly bounced out of her glove. Not quite the stuff of Hollywood movies, but as her trainer noted after the game one which showed hints of Quick prior to the injury.
Quick isn't quite back to her former self yet. She still needs to regain some of her speed that made her a base stealing threat in the leadoff position and she needs to learn how to slide all over again. But her knee continues to strengthen and as if she needed any more clout with the gaggle of freshmen who are on this year's squad, it's also a potent eraser of excuses. Her coaches put this to good use challenging the sophomore to step into leadership, brace and all.
"I've always been a very, very aggressive player. I've run over a few first basemen and been tripped by a few others," she said. "I went after my injury the same way and I'd tell anyone in my situation that if you really, really want to do something then you have to work hard and go after it. It's completely worth it."
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