By Jon Gold
On the day her Division I softball career ended, Ally Wiegand woke up at 6 AM. and started packing. It was a Wednesday, she recalls, after a particularly bad Tuesday, when her hand hurt, and worse, her soul.
She met with her South Dakota coaches around noon and told them of the decision: She was leaving school. It was final. There was no turning back.
At that moment, she says, “I realized I was saying goodbye to my career.”
She was devastated, a shell of her former self. She was damaged on the inside and on the outside. A batted ball had struck her in the hand earlier in the season, limiting her abilities and her confidence, leading to a 5-7 start to her career and a ballooned ERA.
So Wiegand packed up her car and drove home. Her father met her halfway and followed her the rest of the way back. When she arrived, she threw her bag in the garbage. For a month, at least, she didn’t even mention the word softball.
“At that point, I really thought that the sport had brought me nothing but terrible things,” she said.
She was ready to move on, not just from South Dakota, not just from her Coyotes teammates, but from softball entirely. She planned to check out Illinois State or Illinois-Wesleyan, but as a regular student. Not only would softball no longer be her identity, but it would also be a non-entity.
But Ally Wiegand could not escape her past. Her riseball is too good.
Returning To The Field
Quickly, word circulated around town.
Ally’s back. Ally’s back. Coaches heard and reached out. She can’t guess now how many emails she deleted. One stuck with her, from Denise Prater, her former travel coach, and an assistant coach for Division-III Illinois-Wesleyan.
“They said everything I needed to hear,” Wiegand said. “That I’m a human first and a student second and then a softball player, that they were going to do everything they can to be happy and healthy, and it all sounded great. But I was skeptical.”
Skeptical, but with her interest piqued. Softball, it seemed, had burrowed itself into her soul.
But she needed to see the Titans in action, to get a feel for who they were, how they played, and, well, if they smiled and enjoyed playing. Happy teammates are good teammates, it seems.
Wiegand began showing up to I-W games incognito, wearing a bulky sweatshirt and a hat, standing near the outfield fence or high up in the bleachers, away from anyone. She didn’t want to be seen or to feel pressured. Pretty soon, there were rumors. Who is that girl in the stands, and why is she always around?
“People would walk by and say, ‘Hi Ally, how you doing?’” she said. “The gig was up.”
“I saw her every time,” Illinois-Wesleyan head coach Tiffany Prager says now. “She was not great at hiding.”
Prager, of course, was interested. She saw Wiegand pitch for the first time as a high school freshman and knew she was in store for big things. Throughout Wiegand’s career at Tri-Valley High, Prager kept tabs. Tri-Valley is less than a dozen miles away from I-W, after all.
When Wiegand moved home, Prager heard in a hurry.
“I had people reaching out to me within the community almost immediately, keeping me posted," Prager said. "I wanted her to be comfortable making her decision. Not only to play but to play at I-W."
For a while, Wiegand wasn’t completely sold.
The first time around the recruiting merry-go-round, Wiegand acted hastily. She verbally committed to South Dakota two days after her 16th birthday, and being “naïve about NCAA rules,” she didn’t realize how many coaches would continue to contact her. Feeling unsure about the whole process, at the time she was confident in her decision and wanted to stay loyal. Even a coaching change in 2017 did not dissuade her from her original choice.
But, Wiegand says now, “I wish I had more time to figure myself out.”
When everything went south, she knew it would take a special coach to rekindle the love of the game. She found that in Prager.
“I kept stalking them, and I followed them to the conference championship,” she said.
Soon enough, the softball bug bit her again.
She was back, and the Titans were better for it.
How much better? How about this: Last season’s D-III runner-up after losing in the NCAA championship game to top-ranked Virginia-Wesleyan, the Titans went 19-5 last year with Wiegand in the circle. She tossed 16 complete games, struck out a school-record 229 batters and finished with a 1.15 ERA and a second-team NFCA All-American nod.
Not bad for someone who gave up softball.
The Healing Team
Looking back, Wiegand has regrets.
When she absconded from South Dakota like a thief in a stolen car, she couldn’t even face her teammates and left without saying goodbye, or providing an explanation. It was not her finest moment, she said.
“I was not where I need to be, but that’s hard for people to hear,” she said. “Sometimes you have to do that. People don’t understand it. It is such a hard decision, and I had so much backlash. I mean, I had a full ride at South Dakota, and I was told I was wasting my talent. That I was stupid.”
But you have to live in her shoes.
She’d first picked up a softball at the age of four. At eight, she was throwing bullets, so hard that batters were coming to the plate in shin guards. She skipped 13U and was a 12-year-old on the 14U team. In eighth grade, she got a personal pitching coach and started training to be a DI athlete. She says her family “wasn’t that psycho family with softball,” but even despite a relatively healthy perspective, “softball was definitely my identity.”
And in a graduating class of 68 students at Tri-Valley, where, she said, “I was either Austin’s little sister or Ally The Softball Player,” she stood out. Softball is where she derived her worth, and her joy, or what she knew of it. She missed a homecoming for softball, traveled almost every weekend for the sport, ripped up her knee playing it.
Softball wasn’t just her sport. It wasn’t just her thing. It was her.
“Softball was my entire life in high school,” Wiegand said. “But I found I have more passions than softball. There are things I wanted to explore.”
This is a girl who lists, “Hippie at heart,” on her Twitter profile.
That, Prager said, is not a bad thing.
“We have goofy moments that pull out the hippie in Ally,” Prager said of her team.
Added Wiegand: “Our team thrives on being goofy and our authentic selves.”
That, Wiegand said, is what helped pull her out of her shell, and more so, out of the muck.
“My mental health was deteriorating,” she said. “I was looking at softball as a job, and that’s not how it’s supposed to be. Every player will tell you they play because a little girl picked up a ball 15 years ago.”
That little girl, Wiegand found, was gone.
Now she’s back.
She loves her teammates, coaches, her studies and her classmates, and, inch-by-inch, she’s beginning to love herself.
“The coaches told me, you came to us very broken, and it took me all fall and at least a couple weeks into last year to feel comfortable,” she said. “I feel like I was put on this team to heal.”