For senior Fa Leilua, softball is about new opportunities, second chances and family.
Although she is currently second in the SEC for home run standings, Leilua said she never considered playing collegiate softball until the eighth grade.
“I thought nothing of college until I got to eighth grade and got my first letter,” Leilua said. “And my dad was… quite shocked because this was the possibility of being the first person in my family to go to college and actually get a degree.”
Leilua, a liberal studies major, is very grateful for the opportunity she has to attend college, and takes her studies and life outside of softball seriously.
“School is always first, and definitely family and God,” Leilua said.
After being named Most Valuable Player three seasons in a row at the high school level, Leilua went to Arizona State University, where she led the team in home runs during her freshman and sophomore seasons.
Leilua continued her hitting streak after transferring to MSU, and is currently ranked second in the SEC and all of Division 1 softball for home runs. Teammate Mia Davidson is next to Leilua in the home run rankings, and the duo has combined for 16 of MSU’s 18 home runs this season—something Davidson said is not the ultimate goal.
“It’s crazy. We both have each other’s backs, so we’re not really worried about home runs,” Davidson said. “We’re just worried about what each other does for her team, and she’s just been insane.”
Davidson also spoke highly of the intangibles Leilua brings to the team, besides her slugging abilities. She said she can not fully describe what Leilua means to the team.
“I love her on the team, she has everybody’s back, she keeps everybody energized,” Davidson said. “I’m just at a loss for words how great of an impact she’s had on this team."
However, despite her success, Leilua hit a point where she was unsure if she would ever pick up the bat again. MSU head coach Vann Stuedeman said it was a challenging time in Leilua’s life when her father died.
“She had a moment when she didn’t think she was ever going to play again,” Stuedeman said. “She lost her father, and it was a really tough time for her when she lost her dad, and softball wasn’t fun.”
Leilua’s indomitable spirit prevailed, however, and Stuedeman said she is now back and better than ever.
“This is like a rebirth for her. She’s really having a good time playing, and is really passionate about that,” Stuedeman said. “And you can see it when she puts on the jersey. It’s like a second chance, a new opportunity.”
Though experiencing such a loss, Stuedeman said it produces an invaluable perspective on playing with a heart that cannot be taught by a coach, but can only be taught by life.
“Nobody wants to get that sort of perspective,” Stuedeman said. “Nobody wants that to happen to them in their life to have that perspective. I wish I could teach that perspective to the them without having to endure the loss.”
Leilua said she has bounced back and regained a love for the sport, thanks in part to the MSU's program, coaches and her teammates.
“After taking a year off, it’s been exciting, especially with this type of team—it’s special, it’s definitely special,” Leilua said. “It’s nothing I’ve ever experienced with any other team. All I’ve got to say is I’ve got to keep grinding, keep my head down and keep grinding; and just trust my teammates, I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for my teammates, especially the coaching staff and everyone. I’m loving every single moment of it.”
Leilua, however, is not alone in having to endure a tragic loss. Last summer, the MSU softball team lost 18-year-old Alex Wilcox to ovarian cancer. Stuedeman said this loss has inspired and energized the Bulldogs to play with the heart and spirit of Alex in everything they do.
“We all were really close with Alex (Wilcox). She just inspired us all with her smile every day,” Stuedeman said. “Her dad one time said he thought we kept her alive–just the goal of getting here and to be able to play and put on the uniform. It’s an honor to be able to recognize her… She meant so much to all of us and to so many, and inspired so many that every day, not just this weekend, every day we want to honor her and continue her legacy.”
The team hosted a tournament in honor of Wilcox this weekend, in which they won every game. The losses and obstacles Leilua and the team have had to overcome has bound them together in a way nothing else could, increasing the familial atmosphere MSU prides itself on.
“When I think about the MSU softball program, all I think of is family,” Leilua said. “They’re so passionate about sticking together and having each other’s backs no matter what, downs and ups, and I think this is the best program to be a part of, hands down.”
For both the team and Leilua, their losses have inspired them to work harder and play harder. Stuedeman said their challenges have even made the team better as a whole.
“I think in some ways, this is her dad shining through her and she’s really having a fun time playing ball–brings a lot of energy to all of us, lot of fun, great personality, great kid, fun to be around and loves the game,” said Stuedeman. “I’ve been doing this for a long time, and I’m doing it because I love the players and I love the game, and it’s fun to be around likewise people.”