Ashleigh Hughes had seen her brother, Raynard, once in the last three years.
“And it was for a day,” she noted, adding that she even had to miss his wedding.
Communicating on a regular basis isn’t exactly easy, either. Raynard, a senior airman in the military, has a schedule that doesn’t quite line up with Ashleigh’s.
“We can’t talk all the time, but the most we can,” she said. “We talk a couple times a week.”
They also play video games together. Right now they’re playing Horizon Zero Dawn.
“That’s our bonding way,” Hughes said. “It’s more for him, but he usually has a group of friends and I just join and follow the group. It’s my way to talk to him.”
On Friday, she was given a different way to talk her brother, a much more personal way.
Raynard made a surprise appearance at Hillenbrand Stadium before Hughes and the Wildcats took on Oregon.
Arizona was lined up on the third base side when Raynard’s name was announced over the loud speaker. Ashleigh, who was looking down at her feet, immediately picked her head up.
“I was more concerned about the person next to me touching my feet,” she said. “That’s a thing. We have to all be touching. So then I look up and hear my name and I was like ‘what the heck?’”
Next thing she knew, she was in her brother’s arms before he stepped into the circle to throw the ceremonial first pitch.
A surprise guest threw out the first pitch tonight, Senior Airman Raynard Hughes, brother of Ashleigh Hughes!— Arizona Softball (@UA_Softball) April 22, 2017
Thank you Airman ⬇️ pic.twitter.com/xhdOYBuT0h
“It was such a surprise,” she said. “Everyone played me. I had no idea.”
“Probably the best day of my life,” she later tweeted.
Some Wildcats, like Taylor McQuillin, Hughes’ roommate, were in on the surprise. Others weren’t.
“We were trying to plan it, so when I found out it was happening I was just waiting for it,” said pitcher Danielle O’Toole. “I cried.”
The plan was carefully crafted. Those on the team that did know didn’t say a word and Hughes’ parents made sure to keep Raynard’s whereabouts under wraps.
Hughes’ parents arrived in Tucson around 10 a.m. on Friday and they dropped Raynard off at Target before they met up with Ashleigh.
“He was waiting for me to leave,” she said. “They all just played me.”
Head coach Mike Candrea included.
“I was a little worried that she would not be quite ready,” he said. “That’s quite a shock, but she handled it quite well.”
Hughes said she was overwhelmed with emotion as the game started, which Candrea was concerned about, but he had no reservations about letting the whole thing happen — even though it was before the biggest series of the season.
“I’m a softie when it comes to military people,” he said after Arizona wound up beating Oregon, 2-0. “I don’t think we do enough for them. I think one of the neatest things we do in McKale Center is honor someone all the time and I wish it was something we could do at all of our events. We have here, but to me it’s a hell of a lot bigger than this game and so she came up to me and gave me a big thank you for allowing that to happen, but there was never a doubt in my mind that I wouldn’t do that.”
Hughes smiled ear-to-ear when asked to describe the type of person her brother is.
“Brave,” she said. “He’s just a complete soldier. He’s actually getting ready to deploy to Turkey and that was by choice. ... He signed up for orders. He just really wants to contribute.”
Raynard will be in Turkey for the next 15 months and is leaving Tucson on Sunday, so his time with Ashleigh will be brief.
Still, they have three days to spend with each other in the meantime, which is three times as many days as they’ve had together in the last three years.
They’ll be cherished.
“We’re going to go to dinner and hang out,” Ashleigh said. “Hopefully we’ll have a lot of time together.”
You can follow this author on Twitter at @RKelapire