Hudsonville pitcher rebounds after Tommy John surgery, has sites on a bright future
Hudsonville - Something didn't feel right when Aleigha Talsma tried to throw.
After an outstanding freshman season, the Hudsonville pitcher began experiencing pain in her elbow, a puzzling numbness in her pinky finger, a drop in velocity and a significant loss of spin on her curve. Eventually, she went to a doctor, who delivered to Talsma the verdict that pitchers at any level fear the most.
If she was to have any future in the sport she had loved since throwing her first competitive pitch as an 8-year-old, Talsma would have to undergo surgery, Tommy John surgery, and then hope for the best.
"That was definitely hard to hear," said Talsma, now a senior. "I knew it was going to be a long road and that I would miss my sophomore year. But it was also good to know what was going on and that there would be a fix."
Even though many pitchers do regain their form following Tommy John surgery, there are no guarantees. The surgery was especially daunting for Talsma, who had taken the O-K Conference Red Division by storm as a freshman, both as a hitter and a power pitcher. She was 19-2 that season with 1.60 ERA and had 119 strikeouts and 22 walks in 118 innings. She also batted .420 with 51 RBIs and three homers.
But Talsma saw substantial changes in her pitching during the summer and doctors delivered sobering news to a young prospect who had attracted the attention of college coaches.
Talsma said her only course of action was to have the surgery, throw herself into rehab and hope for the best. Helped by her faith and confidence in her doctors, Talsma maintained her belief that she would not only pitch again but could regain the talent which had helped her become an all-state player.
"I just wanted to be the best I could be, to keep working and help my team out," she said. "But it was definitely not fun. I thought (the surgery) would be a one-time thing and I would come back, I had a lot of confidence in my doctor.
"It was hard to just sit and watch, but I had hope and faith in God's plan that it was meant to be. I thought I could back and still love and enjoy softball."
Talsma's emotional and physically grueling rehab led to 10 months of softball inactivity. When she was finally given the go-ahead to get on with her career, Talsma still "had issues" with pitching when she returned for her junior season according to Hudsonville coach Tom Vruggink, who is one of eight Michigan softball coaches with over 1,000 wins. But considering that one of Talsma's personality traits includes a dedicated work ethic, Vruggink believed she would again become a pitching force.
"It was a long, hard struggle for her, with the surgery and rehab," he said. "But she's a worker."
Despite being away from the game for almost year, Talsma returned as good as new. She matched her velocity in the upper 50s that she had possessed as a freshman, honed her curve and added a rise ball. The results were impressive. She went 15-3 with a 1.20 ERA and 103 strikeouts in 111 innings. She also hit .350 with five homers and 31 RBIs.
Numbers aside, Talsma said it was just reassuring just to be back on a softball field.
"Softball means more than anything to me," she said. "It's always been there for me, even when I was little. Everything kind of just goes away for me when I'm between the lines."
Talsma's progress has continued in her final year at Hudsonville, which is off to a 9-0 start following Tuesday's 5-4, nine-inning victory over division rival Rockford. While Vruggink is trying to work two juniors, Mady Howard and Aleyna Kozak, into the rotation, Talsma is still the ace with a 6-0 record and nearly three dozen strikeouts. Talsma is also hitting .500 with a pair of homers. She had a game-winning single in the ninth inning to beat the Rams.
She said there are times when her arm - slowed by a wicked Michigan April - isn't completely back to normal. She notices, for instance, it's harder to get warm when it's cold, so she's looking forward to more seasonable temperatures.
"But for the most part I feel 100 percent," she said. "My arm just likes the warm weather."
Which is what she'll find at the next level. Talsma will see her goal of pitching in college a reality as she signed with Campbellsville (KY) University.
After everything that has happened, Talsma said she considers herself lucky to have learned a valuable life lesson. She lost something she loved, yet was fortunate enough to regain it. Take nothing for granted, she advises.
"It's special for me to be back in there with an opportunity to pitch," she said. "I'm thankful for that. You learn that things can change in an instant. But I'm super thrilled to be playing again."