Kaitlin Ishman was thinking a lot about her father and brother leading up to Monday's PIAA playoff game vs. Greensburg Salem.
"Today marks six months without Dad and nine without Jeffrey," the Warren Area High School senior posted that day on Facebook. "It's been hard without them, but I'm doing okay! Today is gonna be hard without you 'cause this is what we worked years for! Love you guys! Miss ya like crazy."
Warren's season ended that day in a 2-0 loss, but not before a District 10 championship a week prior. And not before Ishman demonstrated enormous strength in dealing with the deaths of her brother and father, who took their own lives three months apart.
Times Observer photo by Andrew Morrison
Warren Area High School senior shortstop Kaitlin Ishman signs a Letter of Intent to play softball at the University of Albany, a Division I program in Albany, N.Y. Ishman signs at the WAHS library with, at left, Warren head softball coach Mark Bupp and WAHS?Principal Jeff Flickner.
Times Observer photo by Jon Sitler
Warren senior shortstop Kaitlin Ishman hugs head coach Mark Bupp after the Dragons won the District 10 Class AAA softball championship on Memorial Day at Penn State Behrend in Erie.
She considered quitting softball after their deaths. But she realized softball was a huge part of her life, and was a huge connection to her life with her father and brother.
"They are always on my mind and will forever be in my heart," she said. "No matter where it is."
That includes at the University of Albany (Albany, N.Y.) - a Division I softball program in the America East Conference. Ishman is excited to play for the Great Danes and "start a new chapter of my life," she said.
"I knew I wanted to play in college," said the senior shortstop who had 27 home runs in high school as a four-year starter, "especially after my brother and Dad's passing -they were the two who motivated me most, and pushed me to do better every day. My brother could point out everything I did wrong with my swing; my dad was just my motivator and the only man who would pitch to me from 10 feet away without a net, just so he could get it over the plate for me to hit. It's difficult to know that my two biggest fans aren't there to tell me good job after the game or give me a hug, but I always know they are watching over me."
Ishman led off the bottom of the first inning of the D10 championship game with an inside-the-park home run.
"I don't think you can put that into words," said Kaitlin's mother Justine of how that made her feel. "Darby was proud of her more than anything... I am so proud. She is an absolutely amazing child that is the strongest person I know. How many people can go through what she's gone through and still survive?"
Justine said she's become even closer to her daughter - even more inspired by her - while they both heal.
"She has always been strong-willed, stepping on the ball field ready to play," said Justine. "It took a little bit, obviously, when Darby passed; she said she wasn't going to play softball anymore, but softball is her life."
Justine wants Kaitlin to flourish.
She said they were sitting in an office at UAlbany when she heard her daughter being told, "You are a D-1 softball player."
Justine can't help but to cry - tears of joy.
"I was so proud of her and all the girls," said Justine of the District 10 championship. "It's not just her - it's all of them. That is something that they've worked so much for."
Justine said Kaitlin keeps to herself a lot, but head coach Mark Bupp, her Dragon teammates and just playing the game were what her daughter needed.
"I'd say I'm pretty proud of myself, but the only way I could be this strong is because of all the support from people, especially my mother," said Kaitlin. "My mother is the one who has helped me most - and I have my moments, for sure. Some things hit me hard.
"All the girls at softball helped me with this; they made it a little easier," said Kaitlin. "Mr. Bupp is my second dad, for sure. I have looked up to him for a long time. And I knew when I went back he would help me through, for sure."
Ishman, who has been an all-state selection, finished her senior season with four doubles, four triples, 12 home runs, 23 RBI and 36 runs with a .463 batting average in the leadoff spot.
She admitted after the D10 final on Memorial Day in Erie that she goes up to the batter's box with her father and brother with her.
"(My father) taught me to play my heart out," she said. "He taught me that I need to push myself, and be hard on myself when I need it, but not all the time. And to always have fun - have positive thoughts, not negative."
Growing up, "I was the Tomboy," she said. "I thought I was stronger and tougher than any boy."
Without her father, her teammates "have all acted like big sisters and younger sisters I never had," she said. "They push me to try my hardest. I've looked up to a lot of them and wanted to be just like them. Softball relaxes me, because I know we all have each others' backs no matter what. So I can relax and talk to 'Lex' (pitcher Alexa Bupp) on the mound, who fires it in, and 'Fuzzy' (Kennedy Walter) on third. I know we all want to be there and kick some butt."
She said it was never really about a District 10 championship. "A D10 title is a bonus and one goal off my checklist," she said. "I have had a blast throughout the years and I have my family doing it with me."
Another goal was to play in college, which she remembers having all the way back to Little League.
"I'm nervous about college ball, for sure," said Kaitlin, "coming in as the underdog. But I'm also excited to see all the different skill levels. I'm excited for the future. I'm ready to get bigger and stronger. I'm excited to start living kind of on my own, starting fresh."
Ishman will major in Nanoscale Engineering, which she says UAlbany is known for, and she'll be a part of a softball program that finished the 2014 season with a record of 34-13, with a conference record of 14-3. The team finished second in the regular season standings in the America East, and went on to win the America East Tournament for the fifth time. For the first time since the 2011 season, the University of Albany softball team played in the NCAA Tournament, traveling this year to Eugene, Ore., to play in the four-team, double-elimination regional round, against top overall seed Oregon, Big-10 runner-up Wisconsin, and WAC champion Utah Valley.
"I'm excited to start a new chapter in my life," said Kaitlin.
Her life will include continuing to play softball, which makes her feel right at home.
"Being out there (on the field) lets me know I'm doing alright," she said. "And nothing can stop me now."