Everyone looks forward to the first practice.
But for Bangor High School’s Alexis Stanhope and Cordelia Stewart, Monday night’s first softball practice was very special.
Stanhope, a senior, underwent back surgery at Boston Children’s Hospital in July and, beginning in December, has been going to the University of Maine’s fitness center at 5 a.m. to rehabilitate it so she could return to the field.
Stewart, a junior, had knee surgery in Bangor in August. She has worked her knee into shape after missing soccer and basketball seasons.
Stanhope has scoliosis, which is an abnormal curvature of the spine. She said that it impacted her tibia, knees and ribs and prevented her from pitching a year ago, although she was the starting second baseman.
Her father Don Stanhope, the Bangor High School softball coach, said his daughter’s pitching motion aggravated her condition.
“We had been tracking the scoliosis since middle school,” said Alexis Stanhope. “It finally reached the point where my ribs were rotating toward my lungs.”
Surgery became necessary.
“Her lung capacity on her left side had significantly decreased in volume,” said Don Stanhope.
Alexis Stanhope was originally going to have the surgery in August, but her father said there was a cancellation in July. They took the spot.
“It was a huge ordeal for her to go through,” said her father.
She had two 13-inch titanium rods and 18 screws inserted into her back during her five-hour surgery.
“Now I’m two inches taller,” said Stanhope, who was also in the middle of a growth spurt and has gone from 5-foot-5 to 5-foot-7.
“The pain after the surgery was unbearable. I never want to feel that kind of pain again,” said Stanhope. She added that she is extremely grateful to the doctors and nurses at Children’s Hospital for their care and encouragement.
She took things slowly and began walking two months after the surgery.
“The teachers and [Bangor High School principal Paul Butler] were amazing to her. They really accommodated her need to not have to carry all of her books, and they gave her extra time to get to her classes,” said Don Stanhope.
Alexis Stanhope gradually increased her walking distances and, after six months, she began going to the gym once a week in December. She increased her gym time to two days a week and eventually began going every day during the week.
She rode the stationary bike at UMaine and began working out on the various machines. She did a lot of upper body work on the machines to strengthen her back.
She would often be accompanied by her father. They would leave at 4:30 a.m., and the workouts would last an hour and a half.
“It was extremely painful at the beginning because I had to tear through the scar tissue and wake up the muscles I hadn’t used in seven months,” said Stanhope, who had missed the soccer season but was still with the team.
“I’m still having some pain but I feel so much better now,” she said.
Don Stanhope said he and his wife Jeannie are “extremely proud” of their daughter.
“She is a tough kid. She has a lot of strength. She persevered, and at no point did she ever have a pity party,” he said. “She had her ups and downs. Some days she didn’t want to get up [and go to Maine], but she did it.
“She is driven and passionate [about playing]. She loves this group of girls and wants to be fit and strong enough to help the team,” he added.
Stewart said not being able to play soccer and basketball was difficult.
“It’s a tough thing to go through,” said Stewart. “But it makes me really anxious and ready to go this spring.
“The knee feels real good. It’s a little sore but I can fight through that,” she said.
Stewart and Stanhope bonded while they were sidelined in the fall.
“We helped each other through it,” said Stewart.
“We’d walk around the field together. It was great,” said Stanhope. “I’m so proud of her [for coming back].”
Stanhope was the ace of the pitching staff two years ago, while Stewart was one of three pitchers who saw mound duty a year ago, although Skyler Cassum wound up as the No. 1 starter down the stretch.
Don Stanhope said he was impressed by how well his daughter and Stewart threw the ball on Monday night.
“Alexis is pitching better than she’s ever pitched. She has a better fastball and a better curve, and her changeup has always been her go-to pitch. Even more important, she looks stronger,” he said.
“I feel more confident than I ever have because I can stay more upright now,” said Alexis Stanhope. “I’m stronger, and my fastball is better.”
Stanhope intends to attend Emmanuel College in Massachusetts and play softball beginning next fall.
Don Stanhope also observed that Stewart is throwing “harder than she did last year. And her knuckle-change was dancing around like it was last year.”
Stewart said she was pleased with her first stint on the mound, too.
The Bangor coach plans to use Cassum, Stewart, his daughter and Emily Reilly on the mound. Cassum and Reilly are juniors.
“Some of them will start and the others will close games out for us,” said Stanhope. “This is the deepest pitching staff I’ve ever had. Skyler is our number one. She carried us through the end of last year. I just want to make sure we have fresh arms at the end of season.
But when they aren’t pitching, they will probably be in the field.
“They are some of our top hitters,” he said.
Stewart can play first base or be the designated player; Alexis Stanhope will be at second; Cassum can play the outfield or be the DP and Reilly will play left field or be the DP.