Erika Leonard of the University of Maine prepares to take off for third base during a recent game in Orono. The Black Bears' senior outfielder has successfully juggled the demands of her nursing curriculum and softball. Credit: Courtesy of Peter Buehner

ORONO — University of Maine softball right fielder Erika Leonard swears by the 20-minute nap.

“Any student-athlete will tell you the 20-minute nap is the best nap you can take. That’s all you need to get through the day,” grinned the personable senior from Rocky Hill, Connecticut.

The short snoozes have been especially valuable for Leonard this semester.

The nursing student has been doing her clinical work during the overnight shift, from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., in the critical care unit at Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor.

She is part of the partnership program in which she worked directly with the same registered nurse every night. In her case, it was Rebecca Walsh.

“She was incredible to work with,” said Leonard. “The partnership experience was awesome because you had access to pretty much everything and, at the end, you had a full patient load. Your nurse is hopefully sitting at the desk and you’re doing all the work.”

But the softball team usually practiced at 12:30 p.m. and had its weight training sessions even earlier.

Leonard either went directly from the CCU to weight training and then to practice, or she would go home for a 2- to 3-hour nap before going to practice and then do her weight training on her own.

“I was tired. I had some mental lapses (during practice),” admitting two or three cups of coffee each day helped her get through it. “But I made it through. You just have to dig deep and get through it.

“Most people who work the night shift sleep all day. I didn’t have that luxury,” Leonard added.

Learning how to manage her time has been vital while pursuing the goal of playing Division I softball and earning a nursing degree.

“With nursing, I haven’t been able to spend as much time on softball as I would have liked. But I had two big goals I wanted to achieve and I managed the two the best that I could,” Leonard said.

She has been a four-year starter at UMaine and is a career .287 hitter. She was named to the America East All-Rookie Team in 2015 and was a second-team all-conference pick and an all-tournament selection in 2016 when the Black Bears won the America East championship and earned a berth in the NCAA tournament.

Because Leonard missed considerable practice time, she would make up for it by working individually with her coaches.

“She brings a lot of energy and positivity to the team,” said UMaine head coach Mike Coutts. “She is very focused and very determined. And she’s an awesome kid.”

Leonard was recently named the recipient of the Dean Smith Award given to the school’s top student-athletes based on academic achievement, athletic prowess, citizenship and community service. She boasts a 3.82 grade point average.

“She is the epitome of a student-athlete,” said UMaine senior Annie Kennedy. “She has inspired a lot of girls to pursue a strong career and play a sport at the same time.”

Her efforts have impressed her teammates and her coach.

“It’s incredible,” said senior Kristen Niland. “I don’t know when she slept. It was crazy to see.”

“She has always been a hard worker and she pushes all of us to keep going and to keep working hard,” said senior Sarah Coyne. “I remember certain practices when I felt tired and then looking to my left and being like ‘Wow, she’s on three hours of sleep.’ So we worked hard for her.”

Leonard said she has wanted to be a nurse her whole life.

“My grandmother had seven kids and took care of everybody. That’s where I got the nurturing, compassionate characteristics that I have,” she said.

“She is very passionate. She cares deeply about people and she gets that from her mother and her grandmother,” said UMaine assistant coach Lynn Coutts, who is UMaine’s senior associate director of athletics. “They are very caring people. It’s a very nurturing family.

Leonard also did a clinical at the Bangor Rehabilitation Center, another at Acadia Hospital in Bangor and stints at St. Francis Hospital and Medical Center in Hartford, Connecticut. She has tutored other student-athletes in anatomy and physiology and has volunteered at St Francis, EMMC, the Wadsworth Glen Health Care Center in Connecticut, the Salvation Army, Habitat for Humanity and the Ronald McDonald House.

Leonard already has a job lined up in the intensive care unit at St. Francis that she will begin on July 30 after taking her board exams.

During her college years, Leonard’s support group has included her family, her nursing student roommates, her teammates and her coaches.

She has dealt with some challenging situations that she expects to serve her well.

“Coach (Mike) Coutts said you are going to have some bad days but tomorrow is going to be a better day. That’s my philosophy on life,” Leonard said.

Early during her freshman season at UMaine, she was second-guessing her decision.

“We were a bunch of real strong personalities and I didn’t know if I wanted to be so far from home. But I knew it was where I was meant to be, I stuck it out and it has been a great experience for me,” Leonard said.

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