Iola’s comeback kid

Iola High School senior Reece Murry has battled numerous challenges, but still has earned the highest achievement as a valedictorian candidate.

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May 10, 2022 - 2:15 PM

For all of Reece Murry’s achievements and accolades on and off the softball diamond — and there have been a bunch — it would only be natural for her to have to overcome another roadblock just weeks from the end.

Sure enough, the Iola High senior has dealt with everything from elbow bursitis that derailed her freshman year of softball, a hamstring pull that threatened to take away her junior campaign, and of course the COVID-19 pandemic that stopped her sophomore season before it started.

In retrospect, she probably should have braced for the worst when she awoke April 12 with a stomach ache.

“I tried to go through it and ignore it,” Murry said. “I have a pretty high tolerance for pain.”

But by midday, the pain had not subsided. It had grown even more acute, and Murry had begun to feel nauseous, which was more of annoyance than anything.

See, it was gameday, and Iola had a key doubleheader at Anderson County that night. 

Murry, who has been Iola’s ace pitcher essentially since the day she first laced up her cleats as a freshman, had a game to pitch.

“I went to my doctor to get some medicine,” she recalled. “I just figured my mom would take me straight to Garnett from there.”

But the doctor deduced quickly that Murry would not be taking any such road trip that day, instead ordering her to head straight to the emergency room.

Her appendix was about to burst.

So, while Murry’s Mustang teammates were taking the field against Anderson County, a pair of hard-fought losses, she was undergoing an appendectomy.

Murry was ordered to stay in bed for the next several days after surgery. 

“I don’t remember anything from the surgery until 6 a.m. the next day,” she said. “And then I had to stay in bed the rest of the week and eat Jell-O.”

She returned to class the following week and was at her high school prom (albeit still a bit sore) on April 23.

“There was no way I was going to miss that prom,” she said with a chuckle. “I didn’t care if I had to go in a wheelchair.”

She went and danced the night away with her schoolmates. It was fun, “but it was a long night,” she admitted afterward.

Murry returned to softball practice two days later.

Sure, there were questions. Namely, how long would it take for things to return to normal?

“I asked my surgeon, and he didn’t really give me a definite answer,” Murry said. “He said there was a small chance of me getting a hernia, which would put me out for the rest of the season. So that was a worry.”

But a follow-up visit to her family physician eased her concern.

“He said everything looked good, and if I was ready to get back into the swing of things, to start practicing, it was up to me. If things started hurting after that, then I’d have to take a step back.”

Still, there was some trepidation. Murry was a bit uneasy, afraid of reinjuring her stomach.

“I could definitely still feel it for a while,” she said,

Even such motions as swinging a bat, or pitching a ball came awkwardly.

“When I first pitched, I thought this was gonna be a disaster,” Murry laughed. “But it went much better than I thought.”

Slowly, but surely, the pain subsided.

Riley returned to the lineup — as Iola’s first baseman — when the Mustangs traveled to Neodesha April 29, and even had a key RBI single as Iola earned a doubleheader split.

Fast forward to Tuesday, three weeks to the day after surgery, and Murry was back on the pitcher’s rubber.

All she did was pitch a complete game victory, striking out five and allowing only one earned run over seven innings in a 4-3 victory. Then, when back at first base, Murry went 2-for-4 with two runs, an RBI and sterling defensive play in the field, where she made a diving stop to her right, and then slipped the ball to a streaking Jadyn Kaufman, who raced over from second base to record the out at first. The play was one of several thrilling highlights in Iola’s come-from-behind 12-10 win.

“That play was scary,” Murry laughed. “I was yelling, ‘Jadyn, get over here.’”

But for all of the thrills the doubleheader provided, there was an equal sense of relief. 

She had not aggravated her injury, and still felt strong by the end of the long night.

Reece Murry was back.

Reece Murry pitches.Photo by Richard Luken

EVEN WITH Murry’s success on the softball diamond — she’s played the sport since she was 5 — it pales in comparison to her work in the classroom.

She’s set to graduate next weekend as one of six valedictorians for Iola High School’s Class of 2022, having maintained a 4.0 grade-point average through high school.

“Ever since I was in kindergarten, I knew I wanted to get good grades,” she said. “Maybe it’s that I’m so competitive in softball, I just always want to do my best, to achieve as much as I can.”

She credits her parents, Aaron and Kim, and older sister, Riley, for their support and inspiration.

Riley Murry, five years older, followed a similar path as did Reece — honor student and standout athlete — with a notable exception.

“With her, she always had great grades, and did very well in school,” Murry said. “She was very involved in sports. I’ve always looked up to her, I always wanted to do what she did, I thought, if she could do it, I could do it too.”

But Riley Murry also had a clear goal of what she wanted to do with her life. From the day she first set foot in the halls at IHS, she wanted to be a pharmacist.

“And here she is, in her last year of pharmacy school,” Murry noted, proudly. 

As an aside, Reece missed her older sister’s white coat ceremony in mid-April because she was homebound following the surgery.

“I wanted to go and support her,” Murry said. “She always supports me.”

Murry has another admirer in Chris Weide, IHS head coach.

“From the time Reece came in as a freshman, she has made a huge impact on our team,” he said. “As a pitcher, we know we have a chance to win every game she pitches.  She’s just that good.  She’s a kid who has put the time in since she was in elementary school to become one of the best players in our area.  That doesn’t come from picking a softball up the first day of the season in February.  That comes from year-round dedication, hard work, and wanting to be the best she can be.  I am proud of her for that, because we aren’t the team we are without her.”

Reece Murry talks with Becky Carlson, assistant softball coach for Iola during a recent game against Wellsville. Photo by Richard Luken / Iola Register

CONVERSELY, Murry doesn’t quite have her path nailed down yet. In fact, she’s still uncertain which college she’ll attend.

“I have it narrowed down to Pitt State, KU, or take a year at Allen,” Murry said.

Her academic excellence has kept doors open to all three institutions, with an abundance of scholarships awaiting, regardless of which school she attends.

Murry assumes a career in medicine will be in the offing.

“After all my hospital time, all my injuries, and seeing how those doctors and nurses care for people, and how well they’ve treated me, I really love that environment,” she said. “There are so many things in medicine. It’s a matter of figuring out what I would really enjoy. What’s the best fit for me?”

Such uncertainty began to weigh on her mind, she admits.

“With my sister knowing what she was going to do, it did make it hard,” Murry chuckled. “Geez, I have to know what I’m gonna do as a freshman?”

But as she went through high school, and learned more about what she didn’t know, Murry soon realized patience is key to her decision-making.

“It’s not the end of the world if I don’t pick something immediately and go with it,” she noted.

OUTSIDE of class, Murry played basketball and volleyball in middle school, “but softball was the only sport I genuinely enjoyed. I love softball.”

Funny thing about softball.

Murry is admittedly one of the shyer kids in high school.

“Public speaking and speeches are the death of me,” she laughs. “I’m very non-outgoing.”

In fact, she once wrote a paper on how speech should not be a required class for high-schoolers — in speech class.

But put a softball in her hand, and the friendly and affable — if not soft-spoken — Murry’s demeanor changes.

“I don’t know why,” she said. “I feel confident. I feel good with myself. I can do this. I can’t go out there thinking I won’t do well, because then I won’t do well.”

Pitchers have more control over the game than any other players, she notes.

And if anything, softball has taught her self-control. How to adapt. How to learn from failure.

“I have failed many times,” she said.

But failure is when her learning begins.

“What did I do wrong, and how can I get better at this?” she asks. “When someone hits a home run off of me, I have to move beyond it. What am I gonna throw next? What do I not throw next? I’m constantly thinking.”

Reece Murry at bat.Photo by Richard Luken / Iola Register

Murry heaps praise upon her catching partner for helping with the learning process.

For her first years of high school, it was Lauryn Holloway — who graduated last year — that served as Murry’s battery mate.

“Lauryn’s so outgoing and goofy,” Murry said. “If I got down on myself, she’d always make me laugh and change my mood. That would help me pitch better.”

With Holloway now a student at Allen, Murry has worked extensively this year with classmate Chloe Sell, another natural fit.

“Obviously, Chloe and I haven’t pitched together as long as I did with Lauryn, but we work well together. We’re friends, and she can tell if I’m upset, which I appreciate. We’ll talk strategy, about what we want to do. Catchers work their butts off. I couldn’t pitch well if I didn’t have a good connection with my catcher, and I couldn’t do what they do.”

The new partnership has fared very well. In seven games, Murry has struck out 56 batters over 47 innings, and sports a solid 2.66 ERA against some of the hottest hitting teams in eastern Kansas.

Murry also has bonded with Iola’s talented crop of underclassmen, who have been thrust into the limelight this season. 

And after a rocky start to the year, those freshmen and sophomores have begun to click as well. After losing both games to Anderson County, Iola has won seven of eight, including winning three of four with her back in the lineup.

“We’ve been doing a good job as a team,” Murry said. “Our defense has worked very well.”

But…

“I don’t want to come off as selfish, because they’ve done so well. But all my life, I’ve pitched. My goal is to be back on the mound. I don’t want to end my career without pitching.”

That tenacity benefits the Iola program, Weide agreed.

“Reece has had a tough season with injuries.  She has shown a ton of physical and mental toughness to be where she is now,” Weide said. “I really think her love of the game and wanting to be out there with her teammates is what helped her get through those things.  We are all hoping to finish the season strong for Reece and her senior teammates.  That is very important to all of us on the team.”

ANY THOUGHTS of continuing her softball career beyond high school?

Perhaps, but the odds are long, Murry noted.

“If something arises, I’d definitely take it into consideration,” she said.

With her senior season truncated because of her appendicitis, Murry said she’ll consider playing in a summer league after high school is out, to give her softball itch one last scratch.

“Growing up, I always wanted to go into college and play softball,” she said. “Yes, I can still make it part of my life, but also after I did play in college after four years, I’d be done, anyway.”

Thus, part of her uncertainty about where to go to college, and what to do.

“Each year I got hurt, I always had it in the back of my mind, ‘next year will be my season,’” she said. 

The surgery, she admitted, “set me back a little bit.”

MURRY had little trouble staying atop her classwork.

“I never felt at risk,” she said. “Through my freshman and sophomore years, I knew I could do this.”

But a new challenge arose as a junior, when Murry enrolled in Travis Hermstein’s American History class.

Ask any Iola High valedictorian over the past 10 or 15 years which class or teacher posed the toughest challenge, and the answer is almost universally, Hermstein’s history and government courses.

Murry was no different.

“He’s the first teacher who really made me work like that,” she said. “His classes are at such a fast pace, unlike any other I’ve taken in high school.” (Her history and government classes under Hermstein are dual credit, meaning she also received college credits for doing the work.)

“His exams are almost terrifying,” she laughed. “It takes a whole bunch of studying, but it’s not like you can just look at a book, and here’s the answer. A lot is critical thinking. How do you feel about it?

“I didn’t know how I thought about this or that,” she admitted. “It really helped me turn on a switch. OK, I’m 18. I know the real world is out there and I have to be prepared. Now, I can think, how do I really feel about this stuff?”

Her score of 92 — three points from a B — likely marked Murry’s high school highlight, she admitted.

“It was such a relief,” she said. “I was genuinely excited. This was great. It’s definitely gonna help me a lot for my college studies. I’ve learned how to make time for assignments.”

MURRY also credits her family for their support, in and out of the classroom.

Her father, a metalworker, is often on the road, more than half the year, working as a boilermaker. 

“He flew in from Canada last week,” she noted. “He’s been to New Zealand and India.”

But when he’s home, he always carves out time to spend with his daughters.

“The first thing he’d do when he walked in was get a glove to throw to me, to play catch with me, to pitch to me,” Murry beamed. “I wanted to spend as much time with him as I could.”

It’s been like that all her life.

“He used to be a dirt track racer, but he gave it up when Riley and I started playing travel ball,” Murry noted. “I would feel bad. This was what he liked to do. He shouldn’t have to give it up for us.”

But, as both her parents soon convinced young Murry, this was what they wanted to do: to spend weekends on the road at tournaments with their daughters, sitting in the stands cheering them on.

“We have such a good relationship,” she said. “My parents have always been my biggest supporter, in softball, or just in life. They always have my back.”

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