It’s been a decision a long time coming. Former Arizona ace Danielle O’Toole thought the Tokyo Olympics would mark the end of her competitive pitching career. Then, the Olympics were pushed back a year and she wasn’t happy with how things finished. She felt like she needed to go out on her own terms.
“After I had my season last season, I was like, ‘Oh, I really don’t know if I can do this again,’” O’Toole said. “And then I realized that that’s not the way I wanted to go out. It wasn’t fair to me or to the game or to pretty much anybody else that I felt that way about softball. So I buckled up. I signed another contract for this year, and I said if I’m gonna go out, I’m gonna go out with a bang.”
She certainly has put that into practice. On Sunday, O’Toole will pitch for the final time as a professional softball player, winding up her career as a member of Athletes Unlimited’s Team McCleney. This summer, she has had one of her best professional seasons.
Her last hurrah got underway earlier in the summer when she finished the Athletes Unlimited AUX season as the champion. Then, came regular-season Athletes Unlimited play on July 29. The final weekend was here quickly, with O’Toole beginning her final series on Friday and standing in good stead. Headed into Saturday’s games, she was in seventh place out of the 60 players in the league.
Perhaps it was fitting that this weekend kicked off against a team featuring two fellow Arizona alumnae, Dejah Mulipola and Taylor McQuillin. Along with Alyssa Denham—who sat in second in the AU standings behind Mulipola heading into Saturday’s games—the four former Wildcats are testimony to the continuing greatness of the program in Tucson.
“To be able to play here along with Taylor, Denham, Dejah, to feel like that Wildcat presence, especially in the college world now where Arizona is...we’re going through the ups and downs of it,” O’Toole said. “I think that people need to see this is what Arizona softball can do. This is what Arizona softball can look like. This is what it should look like. And we came from a place where it’s expected of us to do that.”
As the end approaches, and O’Toole leaves it for the younger Wildcats to continue to show what Arizona softball should look like, the question for her is both simple and complicated. What’s next?
First, she has a goal to limit how much she cries on Sunday.
“I am going to cry, but I hope I don’t cry a lot because I’m an ugly crier,” O’Toole joked. “Yeah, I hope I’m not like a blubbering crying mess.”
After Sunday, she has both near-term plans and long-term questions. In the near term, she plans to return to Cal State Fullerton to continue as the volunteer pitching coach for the 2023 season. As for the long term, she doesn’t have an answer for that question. It will be one for O’Toole and her husband to sort out after he graduates in May, but O’Toole is not sure it includes coaching. She does hope that it eventually includes having children.
“I’ve always said I wanted to be a mom,” she said. “I give a lot of credit to the moms who play or the moms who have kids and coach because that’s hard and it’s difficult and they figure it out. I really admire them. I just don’t know if I want to be one of those moms. I haven’t decided that yet.”
There are advantages to continuing on in coaching. It would mean not leaving the sport that has given her 24 years of memories and friendships.
“When I think about softball...because of where I’m at in my life, my mind immediately goes to my friends, the people that I play with on the field, and I think that I’m gonna miss them most,” O’Toole said. “I’m going to miss my people. I think that I watched my husband—he’s in that fantasy football league—and he makes trips and they all meet at one place to do the draft together and it’s like a year-long planning process. They plan it every year. They go, and I think, God I have a built in system where I see my friends every summer. I know for a fact I’m gonna see my friends this summer, and that is the hard pill to swallow is I’m leaving the game and it feels like I’m leaving my friends, but in reality that friendship’s not going anywhere. It’s just I now have to become the planner that I wasn’t before.”
O’Toole said that she enjoys coaching and knows that she’s good at it. It’s also crucial to helping the game grow.
“What makes our sport grow is sharing that knowledge,” she said.
She might continue if the right opportunity presents itself, but she is also enjoying the idea that the future could be anything after her husband completes his education.
“We kind of have the freedom to choose wherever, whatever we want to do,” she said.
As for the downside of coaching, O’Toole didn’t want to share some of the things that might keep her from staying in the field.
“That’s a really hard and very good question,” she said when asked what besides motherhood might keep her from continuing to coach. “I don’t know how to explain this and I almost don’t want to answer it, because I know what my answer is, but I don’t think it’s good to tell the world that.”
She watched as Caitlin Lowe experienced some of the negatives in her first season at the helm of Arizona softball. While it didn’t discourage her from the coaching profession, it was disappointing for O’Toole.
“No matter what, negativity is all over social media,” she said. “Negativity is all over the internet and it has made people fearless...in terms of how we communicate to each other as humans now...The language between people, it no longer feels kind. So I think that for Cait to get so much criticism and so much backlash, it’s like people have no idea what it’s like to coach a Division I program. People have no idea what it’s like to coach a program after one of the most historic and greatest men alive. It’s like he created the blueprint. We’re just trying to follow it. We hit a hiccup. When we do it’s so difficult and I think people just forget that they have their opinion, they put it out on the thing, and then they’re done. They go about their day and they don’t think about how it affects somebody else who’s reading it like the student athlete, like the head coach, like the assistant coach.”
Still, O’Toole said that if she decides to continue in the profession, it will be because there are more important things than what people say on Twitter.
“I will fight my battles and I’ll do it on Twitter,” she said. “I’m not afraid of that. My husband doesn’t love it because he thinks that I sit there and I think about it all day and I just like dwell on it. I don’t, but it definitely does affect me. So maybe it would affect if I wanted to get back into coaching or not, but honestly I think growing the game is more important.”
O’Toole’s final game will start at 11 a.m. MST on Sunday, Aug. 28 as she and Team McCleney face off against Team Denham on ESPN+.