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Gina Snyder overcomes illness, comes full circle in journey home to Arizona

Snyder was told she’d never play softball again. Now she’s proving doubters wrong one pitch at a time.

Photo courtesy Arizona Athletics

It’s a scorching April day in Tucson and the only thing hotter than the beating sun is UCLA’s offense.

The Bruins just plated their 10th run, taking a seven-run lead on the Wildcats in the game’s final inning.

UCLA is on the verge of a sweep and has dismantled every pitcher Arizona has trotted out, so head coach Mike Candrea decides to try something new.

He summons right-hander Gina Snyder, who eagerly ducks out of the bullpen and into the circle.

The crowd has thinned, and the game is all but over, but Snyder doesn’t care — she’s about to make her debut at Hillenbrand Stadium.

The redshirt junior was born and raised in Tucson, and has been attending UA softball games all her life. So taking the circle in this venue with “Arizona” sewn across her jersey is a dream come true.

Actually, it’s even greater than that.

“I want to say that we dreamed she would play at the U of A,” said Cara Snyder, Gina’s mother, “but we’d never dare to dream that big.”

Snyder whizzes in a few warmup tosses then proves she belongs at this level, recording two quick outs to retire the side.

Her family cheers from the stands along the third-base line.

“It was awesome,” Snyder said. “We were losing, which kind of sucks, but I just felt happy that I could do what I could.”

But there’s another storyline here.

Sixteen months ago, Snyder was gravely ill, battling a debilitating illness that ravaged her physically and mentally. The doctors told her she would never play again.

Now she’s proving them wrong one pitch at a time.

“I survived it,” Snyder said. “And for a long time, I didn’t want to talk about it. ... But I’m more comfortable now because I can actually say I overcame it.”

Snyder was a four-time All-Southern Arizona player at Sahuaro High School, but wasn’t recruited by the UA.

She aspired to be an engineer, so she wound up at Purdue where she posted a 3.98 ERA in two seasons.

There wouldn’t be a third.

In January of 2017, Snyder started having frequent headaches.

Migraines are common in her family, so she didn’t think much of them at first. She took aspirin and tried to sleep them off.

But they were relentless, the pain intensified, and Snyder devolved into a “reckless” state. She uncharacteristically skipped practices and sat through weightlifting sessions.

She was also sick to her stomach, throwing up constantly. One night it became so unbearable that she couldn’t make it to the bathroom.

“And the bathroom was like right across my room,” Snyder said. “I had so much trouble finding my way there.”

The next morning, Snyder tried to let a team trainer know something was wrong, but she wasn’t able to speak.

“I was incoherent,” she said.

Snyder was instructed to go home, rest, and check in later that day for practice. She never did.

“I just laid in bed and slept,” she said. “And that’s when our senior trainer came. At this point, I was really incoherent. I was trying to put a shirt on as my pants, and just doing weird things. So she took me to the hospital and she was like, ‘do you know where you’re going? Do you know where you are?”

Snyder had no clue.

Snyder spent the next week in the hospital.

She underwent several MRIs and EEGs, two spinal taps, and was given anti-fungals, antibiotics, and anti-seizure medication. To this day, no one knows what caused her symptoms.

“They pumped me with everything and anything,” said Snyder, who had tubes and wires stretching all across her body as she recovered in the hospital bed.

Of course, this is just what Snyder has been told. She doesn’t actually remember her first few days in the intensive care unit.

And when her parents flew in from Tucson, she couldn’t even recognize them.

“Then it just hit you that this is serious,” Cara Snyder said. “I was afraid that she was going to be incoherent the rest of her life. ... There was a church in the hospital, so I was down there all the time praying.”

Slowly, but surely, Snyder’s condition improved and she was discharged.

But she couldn’t walk without assistance — it was a “really strange and rigid” motion, Cara said — and she was on medication that made her nauseous.

Snyder couldn’t hold down any food for two weeks and lost 20 pounds.

“It was scary because it had all started that way,” Cara said. “I couldn’t tell if she was having a relapse, so that was stressful.”

Cara stayed with Gina in West Lafayette for two months, driving her to doctor’s appointments and helping her get back on track.

Gina was seeing physical therapists, occupational therapists, vestibular therapists, and neurologists. She was frustrated that she couldn’t complete everyday tasks.

“Day by day she got better, but it was a real slow recovery,” Cara said. “By the time I left after two months, she was as close to normal as I thought she was going to be. In other words she can take it from there. … She wasn’t normal, but I wasn’t worried about her having a relapse.”

Still, Gina couldn’t get cleared to re-join her team, which drove her into depression.

”Moving from Tucson to Indiana, she had no friends but the softball team,” Cara explained. “She felt really isolated and I think that’s why it was so depressing to her.”

Gina’s depression was also fueled by her absence from the circle.

”The most devastating part was not being able to throw,” she said. “I mean that’s the reason I was out there. That’s when I realized how bad it really was.”

Once the semester ended, Snyder left Purdue and returned to Tucson to be closer to home.

It wasn’t an easy transition. Softball was no longer a staple of her life, so she lost her identity.

“She didn’t cry when she was at Purdue, but when she finally got home and had to say goodbye to everything — her scholarship, her sports, her friends and that whole setup — that’s when she started crying and didn’t stop crying for a long time,” Cara said.

Cara felt guilty anytime she had to leave Gina’s room. She couldn’t go get the mail without Gina bursting into tears.

“After the physical recovery, it was a huge emotional torment,” Cara said.

Gina wasn’t sure what was next for her. She considered enrolling in Pima Community College’s medical program or helping coach local softball teams.

Then came along one of Cara’s friends, Cyndi Cubillas, who questioned if Snyder’s days in the circle were truly over.

“Are you sure you’re done? Are you sure you don’t want to try out for the softball team at the U of A?,” Cubillas asked Gina.

Snyder figured she’d give it a shot.

“I’m not done,” she told herself.

Snyder started throwing with her dad in the backyard everyday in the 100-degree heat. She had to learn how to pitch again, and the early results weren’t pretty.

“I have pictures where she just started out and there was no way” it was going to work, Cara said.

But one day everything just clicked for Gina. Softball proved to be the best therapy.

“It just got everything back to normal,” Cara said.

Cubillas knew UA recruiting director Stacy Iveson, so she invited Iveson to watch Snyder pitch at the Centerfield Baseball and Softball Academy.

Arizona had just graduated three pitchers and was in need of arms, so Iveson was intrigued.

“I think we can find a spot for you,” she told Snyder.

Snyder secured that spot later in the summer after a formal, one-week tryout.

“It’s awesome,” she now says of being a Wildcat. “Especially with the coaching staff. They’re people I grew up watching. Working with (pitching coach Taryne Mowatt) has been awesome because she was my idol for the longest time.”

Snyder calls her strenuous journey a “blessing.”

“And everything that happened, I’m happy it happened because of where I am now,” she said. “I have that mental strength that you really can’t get unless you go through something like that.”

It’s now early May, and Snyder’s first season at Arizona is nearing its end.

She has only pitched 1.1 innings and made two appearances — one on the road at Oregon and the one at home against UCLA. Both times Snyder entered with the game already out of reach.

But she appreciates being part of a team again and all that comes along with it — the friendships, the competitiveness, the camaraderie, the workouts, the practices, and even the hectic student-athlete schedule.

“I’ve really enjoyed the process, which is something different,” Snyder said. “Like I may not have gotten many starts, but I enjoy it. I like throwing against our hitters in practice every day. I love going to practice. I don’t take it for granted.”

Snyder believes she is just scratching the surface as a pitcher. The numbers prove that. Her velocity recently touched 68 MPH. She used to throw in the low 60s.

“And my spin is way better,” she said.

Cara said Gina’s spin rate — more spin equates to more break — was recently clocked at 32 revolutions per second, which is “excellent,” according to RevFire.

Candrea has been impressed with Snyder’s progression, too.

“She came in, hadn’t played in a while, and it took her a while to settle down and show me that she can be a stable force out there, and I think just recently I’m gaining more and more confidence with her and I think her time will come,” he said.

Snyder used to be uncomfortable sharing her story. Now she’s waiting for the opportunity to write the final chapter.

“It’s like a great comeback story with no ending yet,” Cara said. “If she gets an inning or a start, then you can run the credits.”

Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire