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For Farmington senior Liza Holchauser, spring sports cancelation meant missing out on learning a whole new sport, ultimately being sent home to Hungary with a new love

By: MATTHEW B. MOWERY, April 15, 2020, 5:04 pm

Four days usually isn’t enough for someone brand new to a team to make a big enough impression to earn a spot — especially not if they’ve hardly ever seen the sport even played before. 

And most certainly not if they’re a senior who’s unlikely to see the field. 

But the four days that Liza Holchauser spent trying out for the Farmington High School softball team this spring made a huge impression on her, as well as the Falcons themselves. 

A foreign exchange student from Hungary, Holchauser had thought about playing for the Falcons soccer team during her final semester in the U.S., but chose instead to try something completely outside her comfort zone — and fell in love with both the sport, and her teammates. 

“During the tryouts I felt so insecure, because I didn’t know what was I doing and also when I didn’t understand something clearly (because of the language difficulties). But that only last(ed) until the second when I first met my teammates. In Farmington everybody from the team was so nice and welcoming. I was sure that I found my place. They immediately got my back, tried to teach me everything during warm-ups. It was so loving,” Holchauser said via email. “After the individual meetings (the last day of the tryouts) I didn’t have a ride home and three of my teammates offered me to take me home and get ice cream for celebration. That was my favorite moment, when I realized what an amazing family I was going to be a part of.”

But four days was all they got as a family.

When the MHSAA put a halt to all spring practices, and eventually canceled the spring seasons, and Michigan schools shut down face-to-face instruction to limit the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, the organization that facilitates Holchauser’s exchange program — Future Leaders Exchange (FLEX) — recalled her home to Hungary. 

And the Falcons lost track of their new teammate for a bit. 

“I spent the better part of the first three weeks of this shutdown reaching out to her counselor at FHS and texting the phone number I had for her with no response. I started up a team Instagram account and she followed it. I immediately reached out to her to make sure she was OK, home, and healthy — all of which are a thumbs up,” said Farmington coach Stefanie Volpe, who has corresponded with Holchauser several times since her arduous trip home earlier this month. “After this shutdown, in the little communication that we have had, Liza has had nothing but compliments for my coaching staff, my players, and even myself that has been very humbling. She says that we were so kind to her and showed so much care and concern.”

That was evident to Holchauser from the minute she put on a glove and a batting helmet, convinced she wanted to try out for the softball squad.

“My experience to watch and actually experience a softball and the tryouts was amazing. I was really scared first because I have never seen either done a sport like this, never even heard about. My first host sister plays on the Ferndale team and I always went to watch her playing. I enjoyed every second of it. So when it came to the spring season I decided that I want to try something new and then bring it back home and share it with others that there are so cool sports like this,” Holchauser said. “I was really excited because It’s something I have never done and experienced. I am a Thai and kickboxer plus a soccer player, so basically nothing including bats and throwing. I was really afraid and I was thinking for two months to try it or not and I made my best decision. And I’m so proud I tried it!”

Right away, Volpe could tell that Holchauser had raw athleticism, even if she didn’t have any refined skills, a product of her background in both soccer and kickboxing. 

“Yes, I could tell she was an athlete. But again, some of the finer skills (hand eye coordination, catching) were difficult for her. She was strong! That stood out the most. … Her story is amazing. I think the first part of her life was spent in a wheelchair. She has come so far with soccer, kickboxing, and now softball,” Volpe said. “After Day One, my assistant coaches were raving about her and how we had to find a place and reason to keep her around. Sometimes you get athletes at tryouts that are lacking in skill and they struggle being coached because of nerves or lack of athleticism. Liza was hardly that. She was extremely raw, hand-eye coordination was a bit lacking, however her coachability was off the charts. She was a sponge and listened to everything we told her. If it didn’t go well the first time, she tried harder the next time.  She hustled everywhere and attempted everything that was asked of her.”

The Falcons were returning every starter from last year’s team, a season in which they’d won league and district titles, so there wasn’t any guarantee that Holchauser would get any playing time. But the Falcon coaching staff decided to keep her on as a manager, to learn the game, and get her in where they could.

“Liza was very well-liked by students and staff at Farmington High School. Multiple staff members were aware that she was trying out for softball and came to me with many words of recommendation about what type of kid she was and how she was a pleasure to have in the classroom. She already knew a couple of the players on the team from being in classes with them so that was comforting for her. Our numbers at tryouts were extremely low this year so a lot of tryouts were ran together with returning varsity, JV, incoming freshmen, and others all together. There were many different skill levels participating in drills that would show the separation between those that are the varsity level and those that are not. Liza being a senior put her at an extreme disadvantage. Seniors typically can’t play at the JV level and even if she could — we likely wouldn’t have the numbers to field a JV team,” Volpe said. 

“To be honest, I don’t know where Liza would have been by the end of the season.  I do know she would have learned the game, her fundamentals would have improved because she showed such perseverance in trying to do things the right way. … 

“At Farmington as well, we have a $350 pay-to-play fee. It would have been unfair of me to take that money from her and never put her on the field. We did discuss it and she was aware of what the season would look like for her and she was 100 percent on board with her role. We were going to carry more players than a typical season due to the lack of JV team so there would have been an opportunity to scrimmage in practice and see her progress.”

It certainly helped, too, that the other Farmington players quickly  latched onto Holchauser.

“My team is a great group of girls. They are kind, hardworking, and truly care about each other. They are competitive which is why we are in the position we are in going forward with trying to win championships. At tryouts, my leaders emerged. I had girls step up to play catch with Liza that I know can throw a lot harder than they were — but doing so with her so that she could be confident in the simple task of playing catch. I had a group of girls take Liza aside to teach about ‘bunting’ because that was something she would have to do when she stepped in the cage to be evaluated. Moments like those helped our coaching staff decide that keeping Liza around as a manager would be one of the best decisions we would have to make this season,” Volpe said.

“Our intentions were to have to practice every day.  She would participate in the things that were basic, fundamental, and skill-based.  When team building, consequence based, or high intensity drills came into play, she would step out and learn with the coaches so that she wouldn’t be put in a situation where she was always the one holding the team back from competing at the highest level.”

Now, she’ll have to learn the game from afar. Volpe said Holchauser, since returning home, has found a softball association where she can try to learn the game. She hails from Gyor, the seventh-largest city in Hungary (population of more than 246,000 as of 2017), on the Danube River, midway in between Budapest and Vienna. Handball is the most popular sport in the city, followed — of course — by soccer/futbol, but softball is more rare.

Even if she didn’t get to finish out her senior year with the Falcons, and graduate from Farmington High in June, Volpe and her team consider her a Falcon. 

And Holchauser does, too.

“Farmington High in general is full of amazing people and I am not the one who is obsessed with school and stuff, but I loved to go there every day, even when I was sick or sad,” she said. “Going to FHS made me better!”

[Photos courtesy of Liza Holchauser and Farmington softball]