Taylor Mendez’s freshman season for the University of Mary’s softball team in North Dakota derailed before it started — but she didn't know it until she’d played five games at second base.
In practice prior to the season-opening Montana State University Desert Stinger tournament in Las Vegas, Mendez dove for a ball and tweaked her left (non-throwing) shoulder.
“I felt fine,” she said. “They said, ‘You all right?’ and I said, ‘Yeah I’m good.’ ” Mendez played all five games in the tournament as UM went 5-0 and placed second on a tiebreaker, launching a 3-run home run in the second game, a 10-7 victory over Sonoma State.
During the fifth game, Mendez made another diving catch and landed on her shoulder, but still felt good to play. But things went awry in her next at-bat.
“I swung at a high pitch, and I let out a scream because I felt my shoulder pop out,” Mendez said. “It went back in, but after the game, I couldn't lift up my arm.”
The trainers at UM scheduled an MRI and Mendez began rehab on her shoulder. The results showed a partially-torn labrum, the cartilage that cushions the shoulder and allows the humerus to swivel.
“They told me we can rehab you and try and get you back this season, but we’ll do best we can do,” Mendez said. Mendez used the downtime to learn at the side of coach Angelena Mexicano — she kept the book during games, sorted batting practice balls, set up the bases for practice, and shot video of teammates during optional batting practice so they could see flaws or changes in their technique.
“I told her with me getting hurt, I’m not going to sit here like any other freshman and just get a year,” Mendez said. “I contributed any little thing I could. I was putting in extra time rather than sitting there.”
But the rehab — exercises designed to strengthen the shoulder make it move easier — didn't seem to be going anywhere. In fact, it may have made things worse. During a game in April, Mendez was keeping the game book when her arm locked into place.
“I had to find a way to move my shoulder to put my arm on my leg to do book,” she said. “When I went back to the doctor for a checkup, he said it was getting worse.”
Mendez opted for surgery to repair her shoulder. When the surgeon opened her shoulder May 2, there were three tears in her labrum to deal with — one in front, one in the middle and one in the back. The tears were repaired and anchors were installed to hold the sutures. Now her shoulder is tight enough that it shouldn't dislocate again — “shouldn't” is the key word there, though. In the meantime, Mendez is being careful in her rehab. “I just have to ease back into it. I haven’t gone full sprinting or anything. Running is getting there,” she said. “I can’t go across my body yet, like for a backhand. Hitting, I’m still working on the inside pitch. It’s a work in process.”
Her sister, Kiley, just finished her playing career at California State University, Stanislaus, and has been a source of both support and aggravation as Taylor spent the summer in Los Banos.
“It was frustrating not being able to play. My sister played slow pitch this summer, and it was frustrating not being able to play,” Mendez said. “Watching my brother play baseball and not being able hit, sitting on the bench all year, it just taught me to keep going all-out and play like it’s your last game.”