04/16/06 — Gruca is MOC's senior statesman

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Gruca is MOC's senior statesman

By Dan Friedell
Published in Sports on April 16, 2006 2:18 AM

Mount Olive College softball coach Jamie Kylis-Higginbotham knows a good player when she sees one. Even if she sees that player on video or remembers her from a camp she worked three years ago.

That's why Higginbotham was thrilled to get an e-mail last summer from Rigil Gruca, an Australian softball player who she recruited as a freshman out of Chaffey College in California three years ago.

"It was random, completely random," Kylis said, remembering her reaction to seeing Gruca's name after not hearing from her for a couple of years.

The e-mail, which contained a release from the athletic department at Nova Southeastern University in Florida, gave Higginbotham permission to contact Gruca. And she didn't hesitate.

"I picked up that phone and I was just so excited to hear from her. And that's kind of how we got back in touch with each other," she said.

Of course, a couple of years had passed since Higginbotham last saw Gruca run, throw and hit. Who knew how time had treated the outfielder?

"Then she sent me some DVDs," Higginbotham said. "And she still was a stud."

And for any team to succeed, studs are a necessity.

The missing ingredient

When Higginbotham took the job at Mount Olive in the summer of 2002, she took over a struggling program that lacked both stars and depth. The Trojans had won the CVAC in 2000, but fans had seen the softball team fall apart quickly thereafter.

If Higginbotham wanted to improve the team, she needed better players, and she had to be an aggressive recruiter. But the recruiting didn't pay dividends right away -- the Trojans still struggled, winning seven games in 2003, 14 in 2004 and 17 in 2005.

"It was kind of frustrating, knowing the talent that we brought in," Higginbotham said.

That first recruiting class -- Colleen Thomas, Erin Wilson, Melissa Bright, Jamie Pruitt, Jackie Wyman and Shauna Cowdrey -- formed the core of today's team, and after Gruca got away, Higginbotham tried not to let many more prized recruits escape.

But now that Gruca's finally here, Mount Olive is 25-28 and has reached the 25-win mark for the first time since 2000.

She hasn't done it alone, but her presence has made a significant impact upon the team.

While the core of players who graduated from high school in 2003 matured and learned to win, Higginbotham cast a wide net to come up with impact players like slugger Georgette Richardson, an Ohioan who leads the team in doubles and RBI and 10-game winner Krystal Bourne, who left a junior college California to come to Mount Olive. She also successfully turned sophomore catcher Bailey Harrell, a Kinston High grad, from a gap hitter into a home run threat.

While a quick look at the team's regular season statistics shows that Gruca didn't lead the Trojans in any one category, but it's safe to say her presence inspired a few wins.

Bourne, who picked up a victory on the team's senior appreciation day earlier this season, said she wanted to pitch well so her roommate's big day wouldn't be blemished by a loss.

The team also put together a scrapbook in which each player dedicated a page to Gruca.

"I was really touched," Gruca said of the effort her teammates put forth to make the day special.

It didn't hurt that the Trojans picked up their first two conference wins of the year and Gruca hit her first home run for MOC.

While Higginbotham knew that Gruca would be a quality player, she didn't know that the former member of the Australian national handball team would improve her outlook on the sport.

"She's made me believe again that no matter how many games you play, you can still play with so much heart," Higginbotham said. "She's made me a better coach (as a result) ... She's one kid that's made me stay late after practice. I'll hit balls to her and it will be like 'one more coach, one more.' I think that's going to be her quote."

Fitting in

Most newcomers to Mount Olive have trouble adjusting to the town's smallness -- as Higginbotham found out when she arrived from Boston in 2002.

"I'll never forget," she said, recalling one of her first days on campus. "I pulled in at about 6 p.m. on a summer day and I'm just thinking to myself, 'Is there some big meeting where everybody is?' Because there were no cars on the road ... I just felt like I was in a time-warp."

Bourne also noticed some differences between Northern California and Eastern North Carolina.

"It's so flat," she said. "You go a hundred miles and you can't tell the difference."

But the topography isn't the only thing that made an impression.

"Fried food. Everything is fried here," Bourne said, shaking her head in awe at the number of fried items available in Mount Olive.

While it's hard to find raw veggies or a ski resort, Gruca, Bourne and Higginbotham agreed that it's easy to find helpful people.

"The people here are so much more helpful and kind," Bourne said. "I guess they call it 'southern hospitality,' and it really is."

Gruca grew up in a small town outside of Sydney, Australia, and said she appreciates the homey surroundings -- a stark contrast to southern Florida, where she went to school for two years before arriving in Mount Olive.

"I like a little country atmosphere," Gruca said. "People are very friendly here, I love that."

Return engagement

Although her athletic eligibility will have expired, she's planning to stick around next year to complete her exercise science and sports management majors. She'll fulfill an internship requirement by working with the softball team as an assistant coach.

She's not anticipating a difficult transition into coaching.

"I think I'll be happy," she said. "It will be hard because of course I still want to play softball, but I'll see the freshmen come up. It'll be a great thrill.

"Next year, (the team) should be even better. (Higginbotham) has got some great recruits coming in, and a lot of the freshmen here have worked so hard. It will make an impact. She's going to have a very good team here."

Two of the incoming recruits are local players -- Charles B. Aycock's Candace Burroughs and North Johnston's Hannah Ellis -- who committed to Mount Olive early.

While Gruca will be assuming typical coaching duties next year -- like hitting grounders and throwing soft-toss, she'll also become a key cog in Higginbotham's recruiting matrix, which until now had only involved players and coaches from the United States.

Gruca will soon be taking her recruiting test, required of all NCAA coaches who plan to recruit off campus, and hopes to find some players with qualities similar to her own back in Australia.

"You need to bring kinds over here that love the sport," she said, going on to explain that Australia is packed with good softball players who are unaware that smaller colleges such as Mount Olive offer athletic scholarships. "A lot of them only know about the big schools like UCLA, and I want to make them aware and get more kids out here."

And Gruca knows that just like her, there are plenty of players in Australia who would be thrilled to both extend their softball careers and go to college.

She's hoping to start a service that helps to expose Australian players to American college coaches.

"I want to help them do the paperwork; because it's kind of overwhelming -- with the visas and transcripts -- it would be helpful to have someone who has been through it," Gruca said.

So a few years from now, when another Australian is the emotional leader of the Mount Olive softball team, she'll have Gruca to thank for blazing the trail.