It seems like destiny now to Brianna Perez, the ex-York (Neb.) College softball standout and recent Nebraska Greats Foundation recipient. She dreamed of playing on a national stage. Instead, she eded up 1,500 miles from home at tiny, private York in southeast Neb., where she overcame injury to become a diamond legend. Then, when more hard times hit, she discovered an entire community, even some strangers, had her back.
Perez was a star high school competitor in her native Madera, California. She suffered an ACL tear as a junior when, covering second base, her cleats got stuck in the dirt and her left knee torqued. She came back strong her senior year. But missing time didn’t net the exposure she needed to land a major college athletic scholarship.
York entered the picture because her aunt Roni (Arellano) Miller played there – graduating in 2001. She’d been a Madera softball star herself. She, too, dreamed of Division I glory before finding her destiny at York. She took Perez on her campus visit and was happy when her niece enrolled on scholarship there. But the homesick Perez lasted only one semester.
“I was closed-minded and not open to the culture of York College. It was different from what I was used to,” Perez said.
She returned home to be near family and friends. She attended Reedley Junior College, where she played ball two years. But leaving York the way she did never felt right. She pined to get back. An unexpected opportunity to do that arose when Miller took the York head coaching job and called to recruit her niece. who had two years eligibility left, to come play for her.
“I was given the opportunity continue my education and softball career, so, I took a leap of faith and decided to go back,” Perez said. “That was the best decision I ever made in my life. I got more involved and made friends I will cherish the rest of my life.
I’m really happy with the way things worked out. I definitely think everything happens for a reason. The relationships you build at a small school like York College are things you can’t really replace or get anywhere else. I think everything happened the way it was supposed to.”
Having her aunt as her coach helped.
“What I learned from her was not only how to be a better player but how to be a better person. I really appreciate that because I use it now in my everyday life.”
Miller’s husband, Kenny Miller, assists coaching the team and Brianna helps out, too.
“Roni and Kenny are two of the biggest influences in my life. I live with them and help coach with them. They’ve been huge mentors. They’ve helped me grow as a person. If I have questions about life and need advice, I know i can always go to them.”
Perez needed support when, as a York junior, she had the same ACL injury she endured in high school. This time, she made a shoestring catch and as she came up to throw the runner out at home, she stepped in a hole and the same ligament twisted and tore.
“Having already been through it once, I knew what to expect. I learned it was just a set-back to reaching my goals and that I had to work twice as hard. I also learned to be mentally tough because there were many days when the pain was too much and I didn’t think I could do it. But with the help of family, friends, teammates and coaches, I was able to push through.
“I think it has made me more mentally tough for difficult situations in life.”
Just as before, she came back strong. For her 2016 senior campaign she played outfield and batted .433 with an .803 slugging percentage. Her 68 hits included 22 doubles and 12 home runs. She drove in 55 runs. She became the Panthers’ first softball All-American.
Then she got tested again when she fell behind paying medical bills from the knee surgery she underwent. A collection agency threatened legal action.
“It was scary and embarrassing. I didn’t really know what to do.”
She depleted her few resources traveling home to be with her mother, who was fighting pancreatic cancer. “I worked three jobs just so I could afford to go home.”
Then her car broke down. “It was a pretty tough year.”
That’s when she learned about the nonprofit Nebraska Greats Foundation that helps ex-athletes in need.
“It’s been such a blessing in my life,” Perez said of the foundation, which paid off her debts.
Her mother has made a full recovery.
Perez views everything that’s happened as a gift.
“It was completely worth it. It’s made me into the person I am today.”
She left after graduating only to return for her master’s in Organizational and Global Leadership. She compiled a 4.0 GPA. She hopes for a human services career.
“I’m passionate about helping the less fortunate and homeless. I’ve done a lot of volunteer work with that.”
She works in admissions at York, where one day her younger sisters, also softball phenoms, may follow her.
“I tell them all the time, ‘Don’t let anything hold you back.’ I showed them that it can be done. They’re capable of doing that and so much more. They might have offers to play softball at bigger schools but,” Perez said, it’s possible” they could continue the family legacy there. “They’ve come out to visit and they like it a lot. I’ll support them in whatever they want to do.”
Perez is enjoying coaching.
“It’s really cool to see players accomplish something they didn’t think they were capable of. When that happens, you see their confidence go up and carry over into everything else they do. That’s satisfying.”
Though she may not stay in York, she said, “It will always be a little home away from home for me. I’ve been given so many opportunities through York College.”
Lea más del trabajo de Leo Adam Biga en leoadambiga.com.