Hermleigh pitcher plays 'game of her life' after dad passes away

Morgan Kariainen.jpg

When the Hermleigh softball team won its playoff game against Rotan last Saturday, it wasn't just big because it advanced the Lady Cardinals to the regional finals.

It was also significant for what it meant to one of their players going through a tragedy.

On Monday, May 7, junior pitcher Morgan Kariainen finished practice, and called home to talk to her mother.

"I could hear my mom crying, and I immediately thought it was my grandma," said Morgan.

Instead it was her father. Ernie Kariainen unexpectedly suffered a heart attack, and passed away. He was 56 years old.

"It was honestly a big shock," she said, adding that Ernie wasn't in poor health and had been working around the house a day earlier.

"I fell over crying, and my uncle was trying to pick me up, but I just wanted [coach Heath] Gibson. I knew I could lean on him whenever I needed him. I knew he would have the words I needed to hear."

"She came to the house and we cried," said Gibson, who is the Lady Cardinals' coach.

"I told her we were going to go in and talk about some things and we did. Then all the girls started showing up. I think it made a terrible situation into something that was bearable for her."

Having her teammates there to support her made it feel like a family, said Morgan.

Ernie loved coming to her games and played the role of nervous father watching his daughter throw fastballs and change-ups by opposing batters.

"We were a lot alike. People tell me I look just like him, but I'm like, 'no'," said Morgan with a smile. "He was my main one."

On Wednesday, she started thinking about softball again and went back to practice. She said it was emotional, but it helped to take her mind off of the loss.

On Saturday, five days after her father died, Morgan was pitching in Hermleigh's one-game playoff series against Rotan.

"I wanted to play. I wanted to play for him because I knew that's exactly where he wanted me to be," she said.

Morgan gets nervous before every game, but those emotions were amplified on Saturday.

"I was terrified I wasn't going to pitch good. I wanted to play the best I've ever played for him."

She did just that. Morgan pitched a complete game, striking out four batters in the Lady Cards' 17-8 win against the rival Yellowhammers, which had beaten Hermleigh twice earlier this season.

"That was the best game she's ever pitched," said Sandra Carr, who is Morgan's catcher and best friend.

"I've never pitched as good as I pitched that game," said Morgan. "It was amazing just to know that we won that game. That was the main goal, and especially for him."

During the game the Lady Cardinals wore a black sticker on their batting helmets with the initials EK -- for Ernie Kariainen.

"Every time she puts that helmet on she remembers him," said Gibson. "It was something simple we could do to have his memory on our mind on that day."

This team knows Ernie will be with them through the rest of their state tournament run.

Hermleigh will next play a best-of-three game series against Borden County. Game 1 is set for Thursday night at 7 at Lubbock Cooper H.S., with Game 2 on Saturday at 11 a.m. at Lubbock Christian University. If needed, a deciding Game 3 would follow.

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