By Vin Gallo
Talia Loda made sure to do it every inning.
Before stepping into the circle as the Springfield College softball team’s first line of defense against the Babson Beavers last week, she was sure to run her finger through the dirt of the loneliest place on the field, and etch out a ‘10.’
“Come on,” Loda prayed. “I hope you’re with me today. Please give me some luck.”
She proceeded to toss a complete game of three hit ball, leading the Pride to a 4-1 victory over their rival.
It’s been a challenging last couple of years for Loda. One doesn’t encounter life’s experiences in any particular order. It varies, for each soul. What one lives through young, another may live through when they’re a bit older. And there’s no choice. There’s no foreshadow of what’s to come or when it will happen, whether gracefully pleasant, or unspeakably horrific.
Loda will always believe she found the right fit for herself with the Pride. But both her academic and softball careers at Springfield have been a formidable test of emotional strength. Loda has needed to work through separate points of grieving while pitching for Springfield.
Loda plays for all of them. She makes sure to enjoy softball, for her grandfather. She makes sure to get the win, for Danni.
And she makes sure she’s never alone when standing off against the opposing lineup. Before taking to the field with her team, Loda always slips 10 cents into her cleat.
She always carries a dime for ‘Diesel.’
Loda grew up in a family that has great enthusiasm for the diamond field. Her brother, Sam, is a catcher for the Central Connecticut State Blue Devils. Talia followed in her mother, Katrina’s, footsteps by picking up softball and pitching for her hometown East Haven Yellowjackets.
Loda’s introduction to the sport was relatively casual. She’d spend hours in her yard trying to hit the array of trick pitches her brother would throw with the wiffle ball, a challenge she found success with by batting lefty. When it came to pitching, Sam would always shy away from catching for his sister, afraid that she was “too wild.” So, Talia’s mother taught her how to pitch, and her father, Greg, would catch for her, risking the occasional shot to the shin.
Growing up, Talia would always pitch with a bit of a chip on her shoulder. It mostly had to do with the initial doubt in her ability, which opponents would sometimes have, when faced against a girl only a tad over 5’0.
“A lot of times she was considered too small pitch, she wasn’t always given a first chance,” said Greg Loda. “Not a lot of people gave her the [opportunity] to be a No. 1 pitcher. The better she got, she just wanted more and more. It’s her drive that stands out.”
Loda, much like her family, was confident in her ability, and relished for the opportunity to rack up strikeouts on any lineup that approached her.
“Usually pitchers are a lot taller than I am, and a lot more muscular,” she explained. “When I’d be on the mound sometimes people would say, ‘Yeah, she doesn’t throw that hard because she’s so small.’ But little did they know.”
Loda still had her share of fans in the stand. There was her grandfather, who was always sure to let the umpire hear it, whenever a borderline pitch was called against his granddaughter. Then there was Michael ‘Diesel’ DeAngelo. DeAngelo, who was a year behind Loda, was a three-star athlete for the Yellowjacket football, basketball, and baseball team, as well as a close friend of Talia. DeAngelo was a regular at the softball games and Loda would return the support by watching him and her brother both suit up for East Haven. DeAngelo being one of her biggest fans.
After flying under the radar in her first two seasons with the Yellowjackets, Loda’s name spread through New Haven County by her senior year in high school. She led East Haven to the state championship against the Seymour Wildcats, a contest the team would lose 2-0.
Loda’s team was down, as was she. But she had Diesel backing her.
“He just told us he was proud of us,” said Jenna Gaudioso, Loda’s best friend from East Haven, and another close friend of DeAngelo. “He said that we had a great run and that it was fun watching us. It was really nice.”
Everything was looking up for Loda in her freshman year at Springfield. She would eventually end her first season having appeared in 20 games, while spinning an ERA under 2.50. During the week before NEWMACs, Loda was notified that she would be pitching throughout the tournament as a starter.
The night before day one of NEWMACs, a tilt against Wellesley, Loda received a call from her dad. Her grandfather had passed away.
Loda considered returning home after hearing the news.
“After my dad called me, I told him ‘I need to come home, I need to be with you guys.’ But he told me ‘No, he would have wanted you to play.’”
She stayed, and took the ball as a starter against the Blue the following evening. Loda pitched a scoreless first, but was roughed up in the second inning, surrendering six runs on four hits. Her day was done after pitching 1.1 innings through a heavy heart. Loda didn’t notify her coach, Julie Perrelli, of her grandfather’s death until after the game.
“[He] was the first family member who I lost, so it was really hard for me,” she said. “He’d stream all of my games, he’d go if he could, and call me every night after I’d pitch.”
It was a difficult ending for Loda’s freshman year. But she remembers what her grandfather would always remind her every now and then.
“He’d always tell me to let loose and have fun, and that’s when I do my best,” Loda remembered. “He’d always tell me to play for someone other than myself.”
Loda remembers sitting in the campus Union on a Wednesday morning as a sophomore. It was April 20, 2016. She had just come from class, and was waiting for her next one to start. Practice would be later that day.
Loda scrolled through Twitter and saw someone had posted a photo of Michael. As did another. And another. And another. “Okay,” Loda thought. “What’s going on? I know it’s not his birthday.” She checked Instagram, and read the posts. Michael had passed away. He had been involved in a car accident. Loda felt her heart sink and shake with panic, convinced she was in a vivid nightmare.
“This can’t be real,” she thought. “This can’t be real. This can’t be real.”
Loda immediately called Gaudioso, her best friend from high school, and then sophomore outfielder for Western Connecticut State University softball. She had been attending college with DeAngelo.
“Jenna, what happened? Is this real?”
Gaudioso confirmed Loda’s worst fear. It was.
Gaudioso couldn’t stay on the line with Loda, who had class in 20 minutes. Compelled by the combination of disbelief and ambition to fight through the pain, Loda attended. But everything was muted. Loda felt her eyes begin to burn when reality started to set in. She left, returned to the Union in a daze, and cried beside her teammate Emily Reynolds. She had lost two people close to her, in a span of less than a calendar year.
“I was hard for me to think it was real,” Loda said. “[Diesel] was only 19. I had talked to him the weekend before – he told me how much he missed me and I told him how much I missed him.”
DeAngelo’s passing was a hard blow to Loda, who said she wasn’t in the right mindset for the remainder of the season. She finished with a career worst 2.95 ERA that year. Her heart just wasn’t in it.
It was early that summer when she’d eventually gain her motivation back, the drive that helped her become a star with the Yellowjackets, and the promising collegiate pitcher the Pride knew.
“My brother [was still in high school], and Diesel’s dad would still go to his baseball games, since it was Diesel’s former team,” recalled Loda. “I talked to him, and he told me that I was one of [Michael’s] really good friends. He always talked about me. [His dad] said to play for Diesel, because that’s what he would have wanted.”
Reynolds was crushed to see Loda end the season on such a low note, and hoped that her teammate and friend would be able to bounce back.
“Dealing with a loss is really tough,” said Reynolds. “I went through it my freshman and sophomore year too. I knew what Talia was going through and I wanted to be there to support her, because I know how tough it is to lose somebody. She was such a big part of the team. I didn’t want to see her like that and I didn’t want it affecting her game either, because she’s so determined to do well.”
Much like her team, Loda started the 2017 season on fire. But it wasn’t before enduring another tragedy. One of her former teammates, Danni Kemp, passed away from brain cancer days before Loda left with Springfield for their spring trip to Kissimmee, Fla..
Enough was enough. Loda was going to be sure that pitching in both her friends and grandfather’s honor would be emphatic.
“She ended up coming out strong,” said her father, Greg. “She’s emotional, but very confident. She’s had highs and she’s had lows, but she’s worked through it. She used it all as motivation.”
Loda wrote the three names of those she lost in a span of only two years on her batting gloves, gloves she continues to wear. Then she went to work. The Pride won five straight games to start the 2017 season, and launched themselves into first place in the NEWMAC with an 11 game win streak through March and into April. Loda led the charge, and finished the season 19-5 with a 1.41 ERA and 99 strikeouts.
The 2017 Pride would lose in the first round to UMass Boston. But Loda has one last stand with Springfield. Loda spun her three hit shutout last week against Babson on the two year anniversary of DeAngelo’s passing. This puts her season ERA at a career low 1.31 with NEWMACs on the horizon.
Gaudiosio knows Loda can carry on their friend and fellow Yellowjacket’s legacy with grace. She believes that Loda is pitching for something bigger than the sport. “You can’t tell if her team is up by 10 or down by 10,” Gaudiosio said. “A big part of that is that she’s doing it for the people who can’t play anymore or the people who can’t watch her play anymore. That’s huge.”
Springfield may not be nationally ranked like it was last season. But Loda is not bothered by any underestimation. She’s been there before. Some of her friends and family may no longer be in the stands, but they will always be cheering her on.
“Talking to Jenna and Emily [and Diesel’s dad], that helped me learn to play for all of them [my grandfather, Diesel and Danni],” said Loda. “I know that’s what they’d all want. I want to play for somebody other than myself.”