Leader Blues

Friday, May 26, 2006

SPORTS >> Jacksonville senior shows big and overactive heart

BY RAY BENTON
Leader sports editor

IN SHORT: JHS softballer Whitney Conrade overcame multiple physical setbacks.

There’s a lot to be said about any high-school student-athlete that gets a scholarship to continue his or her sport in college.

There’s a lot more to be said about one who overcame knee injuries and heart surgery to get one.

Jacksonville shortstop Whitney Conrade recently signed with Williams Baptist College in Walnut Ridge, opting to sign early rather than waiting to see what else came along.

Conrade was loyal to WBC coach Angie Burnside, who was the first college coach to show interest in her, the first to offer her a scholarship, and the one who drove to multiple Jacksonville games to see her play.

“All that really meant a lot to me,” Conrade said.

“She didn’t have to drive two-and-a-half hours to watch us play North Little Rock, but she did and that meant something to me.”

Conrade has received some interest from UCA, Ouchita Baptist and Hendrix, but none have come forward with a scholarship offer. It may have been different if they had seen the game Burnside saw when she watched Conrade play for the first time in Jonesboro.

Conrade blasted two pitches out of the park that day, and Burnside wasted no time telling Conrade she wanted her to play for WBC.

“She didn’t actually offer me right then and there, but she told me she wanted me to play for her,” Conrade said. “She just had to go back and check her budget to see what she could offer me.”

Just two days later the call came, and the offer was made.

Conrade thought it over for several weeks, and finally made her decision shortly after the Lady Devils lost to Fayetteville in the semifinals of the state tournament.

“I sort of already knew what I wanted to do, I just didn’t say anything because I was thinking about waiting to see if any of the others offered anything,” Con-rade said. “But I really knew I wanted to play for Williams, so I made my decision.”

The shortstop/catcher, who can also pitch, made All-Conference as a freshman and sophomore at North Pulaski. After transferring to Jacksonville, she made All-Conference and All-State her junior and senior seasons.

In her senior campaign, she hit .411 with three home runs, four triples and had an .805 on-base percentage.
And she’s not just a softball player. She’s also receiving an academic scholarship from Williams Baptist.

Despite all the accolades, Jacksonville High School coach Phil Bradley felt she ended her high school career one accolade short of what she deserved.

“She should have been on the All-Star team,” Bradley said. “Those girls from our conference, from Mountain Home and Jonesboro that they took in front of her, Whitney can play circles around them.

Fortunately for her it worked out ok because she already had a scholarship, but there’s no reason that I can see why she’s not playing in that game. She’s one of the best players in the state.”

Bradley isn’t just impressed with Conrade’s ability to play, he says she is one of the most dedicated players he has coached.
Conrade overcame a knee injury last year, and this year came back from heart surgery in February. The same day of the operation, Conrade was at the practice field as an observer.

“She was back that day, and she was practicing with us again in a week,” Bradley said.

Conrade didn’t understand her coach’s apprehension.
“I just wanted to be out there playing,” Conrade said. “Coach (Tanya) Ganey kept telling me to take it easy, and I didn’t have to be out there so soon, but I was determined to get back out there.”

Conrade began suffering from spells of increased heart rate and dizziness during volleyball season, but repeated doctor visits found nothing wrong.

Finally, in February, doctors detected too much electricity running through her heart, causing the sudden spikes in pulse rate. Corrupt cells were forming extra pathways for the electricity to flow through.

So she went through a procedure called a heart ablation.

The surgeon raised her pulse to 200+ beats per minute to identify the problem cells, and froze them. The procedure was simple, but potentially very dangerous.

Conrade made it through cleanly.

“I was a pretty sore in my leg where they went in, but once that was gone I was ready to play,” Conrade said.

The Lady Red Devils had a great season, and became the first Jacksonville fastpitch team to advance to the final four of the state tournament. There they suffered their most disappointing loss, 6-4 to eventual state champion Fayetteville, a game in which all six of the Lady Bulldog runs were unearned.

“That was a big, big disappointment, but we still had a good season. We won 23 games and we set a school record by making the final four. And it was fun. I’m really going to miss my teammates and coaches.”

Conrade is now trying to find a team to play with this summer, but 18-under teams are few, and the ones that are around are full.

“I really want to play, but if I can’t, I’m still going to work out and practice with my dad,” Conrade said. “I’ve got to make sure I’m in shape and ready to play when I get to college.”

WBC has a fledgling softball program that showed vast improvement last season when it went 6-9 in conference and 20-30 overall.

That record had many more wins than the previous year, under the direction of first-year coach Angie Burnside.
Conrade will join Jacksonville graduate Justine Rial on the Lady Eagles’ roster next year, and looks forward to helping build a strong program.

“I saw them play and they weren’t bad,” Conrade said. “They are improving and they showed a lot of improvement this year. I really like coach Burnside and I can’t wait to get there.”

Conrade can play anywhere on the field.

Her favorite position is behind the plate, but she has a team-first attitude that she hopes will get her early playing time.
“I know that I’m not going to start every game,” Conrade said. “I just want to play and coach Burnside says I will.
“I love catching because I’m in on every play of the whole game, but I’ll play anywhere the team needs me. It doesn’t matter to me where they put me, I just want to be on the field.”