Courtney Eyler clapped, cheered, dished out high-fives — and anything else that fit into the category of good teammate.
Eyler was a portrait of positive body language during that July afternoon softball tournament in Kansas, masking the emotional pain that burned inside.
“Inside, it was killing her that this happened,” her grandmother, Brenda Eyler, said.
Earlier that day, Courtney deftly maneuvered her way around the opposing team’s catcher to score the winning run for the 18-and-under PA Strikers — a Pennsylvania-based travel softball team. But when she stepped on home plate, her right knee buckled.
Courtney’s worst fear — a torn ACL — wasn’t confirmed until a week later, but numerous questions had already started racing through her mind. After all, she was a Catoctin High School senior who had verbally committed to play softball at Penn State more than two years earlier. But the coaching staff that recruited her was no longer there, and that verbal commitment she gave to the Nittany Lions certainly didn’t qualify as a binding contract.
“Penn State got a new coaching staff — they very easily could have looked at a list and said, ‘We don’t want you,’ or change the offer,” Catoctin coach Jessica Valentine said.
If Courtney expressed any fears last summer, they won’t be on display today, when high school athletes can put their commitment to play sports in writing. Athletes such as Courtney have the option to renege on their verbal commitments and choose another school, but she didn’t go that route. Instead, she’ll be rewarded for her loyalty when she signs a National Letter of Intent to play softball for Penn State.
The gratitude the younger Eyler feels will become apparent to anyone who sees her pen a signature on her letter of intent. For someone who is recovering from an ACL injury, that gratitude extends well beyond the world of softball. And she’s gained an inner strength that she wouldn’t have ever had if she hadn’t suffered her injury.
“I obviously didn’t want this for me, but I’m almost glad that it happened because it made me appreciate a lot of things more,” Eyler said.
Armed with an abundance of natural talent, Eyler was viewed as a can’t-miss recruit before she entered high school. The ball jumped off her bat, and she could field and throw with a metronome-like rhythm at shortstop.
Those abilities translated into a .595 batting average with eight home runs, three triples, 11 doubles and 24 RBIs during her sophomore season. She currently ranks as the country’s 79th-best high school player, according to the website extrainnings.com.
But Eyler, who also played basketball at Catoctin, wasn’t thinking about hitting a softball or chasing down a grounder on the infield while recovering from her surgery.
“I wasn’t able to walk on my own,” she said. “I wasn’t able to do a lot for myself.”
So if she performs any sort of routine task, she doesn’t take it for granted. Eyler now expresses gratitude for doing something as simple as taking a shower. She couldn’t get the bandages on her knee wet after her surgery, forcing her to wash her hair over a sink.
Also, Eyler wasn’t able to drive for six weeks.
“I just started skipping, which seems like something so natural that a lot of people can do [easily],” she said. “For me, it’s big because I really haven’t been able to move a lot — do a lot of cardio.”
Eyler hopes she can start running at the end of the month or in early December, but she doesn’t foresee herself returning to competitive softball until the summer. And at that point, she could see herself relegated to designated hitter duties.
Aside from the physical aspect of the injury, Eyler said she has gained a new-found maturity.
“I’m really glad that I’ve watched myself grow, not only physically but mentally,” she said.
Her rehabilitation certainly required mental toughness as Eyler fought through some significant physical pain during physical therapy for her knee.
“Whenever you fail, you just get back up and keep trying,” Eyler said. “I wasn’t able to bend my leg. It was painful, but …. [my doctor told me] you need to feel some pain to get better. ‘Push through the pain’ is definitely something I’ve learned.”
Approaching her rebab with that kind of positive attitude wouldn’t surprise Valentine, who said Eyler’s work ethic matches her talent.
“A lot of kids that are gifted or born with certainly athletic abilities just rely on those abilities,” Valentine said. “That’s not Courtney. She works hard, and if you ask her, [whatever she has accomplished] is not good enough.”
Valentine also praised Eyler for looking at the big picture when making her college decision. Eyler plans on majoring in pre-med at Penn State, and the school’s options for a college education played a big role in her early commitment.
“She made the choice as a person, not necessarily as an athlete,” Valentine said. “Her choice was an all-around choice, not just softball at Penn State. A lot of kids don’t do that, and I’m really proud of her for doing that.”
EARLY SIGNINGS AT A GLANCE
Here is a list of Frederick County athletes who are signing National Letters of Intent on Wednesday's early signing day to play sports at Division I or Division II colleges. If names are missing, email omissions to email@example.com.
Courtney Eyler, Penn State, softball
Rose Bubakar, BYU, basketball
Jade Catlin, Virginia Tech, lacrosse
Bailey Broadbent, Jacksonville, lacrosse
Alyssa Daley, Naval Academy, lacrosse
Brynn Hoffman, Jacksonville, lacrosse
Zach Martin, Maryland, baseball
Saylor Poffenbarger, Connecticut, basketball
Gabby Averill, Mount St. Mary's, lacrosse
Kailey Balcombe, Flagler College, lacrosse
Sam Mogar, Limestone, field hockey
Hayley Taylor, Duquesne, swimming
Mei Homman, Frostburg, soccer
Jacob Orr, Maryland, baseball
Trevor Yusko, Frostburg, baseball
St. John's Catholic Prep
Merryn Eaton, Notre Dame College (Ohio), lacrosse
Jasmine Huskey, Mount St. Mary's, basketball
Skylar Andrews, Frostburg, girls soccer
Lauren Moore, Trevecca Nazarene University, softball
Rachel Nichols, Frostburg, lacrosse
Jackson VanTassell, Radford, baseball
Brooke Alban, West Virginia, gymnastics
Ella Auderset, North Carolina, track and field
Jadelyn Coleman, High Point, lacrosse
Maggie Goodwin, Virginia Commonwealth University, field hockey
Heidi Hartje, West Virginia, gymnastics
Avery Hines, Stony Brook University, lacrosse
Jack Jozwiak, Delaware, lacrosse
Jason Jozwiak, Delaware, lacrosse
Eric Kolar, Maryland, lacrosse
Jason Kolar, Delaware, lacrosse
Emma Regan, Le Moyne College, lacrosse
Hailey Smith, Illinois, National Wheelchair Basketball Association
Natalie Voorhees, Pittsburgh, lacrosse