SETH - After a back injury caused her to miss her entire junior season of softball, Sherman High's Haylee Clendenin returned to the field of play to help lead the Sherman High softball team to the Class A Championship in 2019.
As if that honor wasn't enough, Clendenin mashed her way to an MVP award for the South in the North-South Classic all-star softball game, which features the best seniors across the state at all levels.
"I know that there is an attitude about small schools," Clendenin said. "I wanted to represent players from small schools and show that we have something to offer, too."
All Clendenin did as a senior is hit .380 with a single-season school record 21 doubles, a pair of triples, four home runs, 44 runs and 46 hits. The fleet-footed shortstop also notched double figures in steals in 2019.
With all of the accolades and a future lacing up the spikes for the Lady Falcons of Fairmont State inhand, her senior season was in jeopardy.
She had already decided to focus on softball as a senior but was playing volleyball, basketball, running track and cheering as a sophomore and entering her junior year, she began feeling something she had never experienced before.
"My back started hurting in a very specific spot," she said. "At first we were told it was a pulled muscle and the MRIs didn't see anything."
She rested as instructed and through spring softball as a junior, her back locked up and she could barely move.
"I had been taking it easy and was trying to ease back into it and I was taking some swings," she said. "There was one swing that hurt so bad it was like I was paralyzed and they had to carry me to the car because I couldn't move."
It was then she met with a back and spine specialist in Huntington. Another MRI and a bone scan with contrast showed a stress fracture between her L5 and L6 vertibrae. The mystery of her pain had been solved.
The student-athlete with a 4.0 GPA was told that it had happened through overuse and isolating a singular incident that caused the fracture would be difficult.
Clendenin said that she continuously thought about what moment in her athletic career could have caused the injury and she came up with nothing.
"It could have been in jumping in volleyball or cheerleading, it could have been sliding into a base, who knows?"
It was at this point that she was measured for a back brace that she would wear for 12 weeks. She had to wear it 24 hours per day with the exception of bathing.
"It was very restrictive for a very active person," she said. "It was hard but I was dedicated to doing what the doctor asked me to do."
The Lady Tide were runners up in softball her sophomore year and she had to watch from the bench as a junior as her team fell to Moorefield in the elimination round of the state softball tournament in 2018.
"It broke my heart and it was tough to sit there," she said. "Watching my team play without me was unbearable. I liked watching them advance but it was hard not to contribute."
Clendenin was able to remove the brace and went faithfully to physical therapy and she knew rather quickly that her back wasn't healed.
"I could just tell that it wasn't right," she said. "He pretty much said that it should have healed and if it I was still feeling pain, I'd likely deal with it the rest of my life. That was hard to hear. I thought I'd never get to play again."
She was given the option of wearing the brace for another three months or accepting her fate.
"I put the brace back on," she said.
Three months later, tryouts for softball were on a Monday and she had the brace removed on a Friday. It was time to sink or swim.
"When I got it off, it still felt weird and I wasn't about to tell anyone," she said. "I jumped back in and once I started playing softball it was gone. The pain before was excruciating. You don't realize what something means to you until it's taken away."
Clendenin said there wasn't a single point in the season where she felt that her back was in jeopardy or that she felt pain. She played as hard as ever and set the tone on the base paths for Coach Jim Henderson's squad.
"I learned that God has a plan and it may be something we don't want, but we've got to work through it," she said. "If you want it, you have to go and get it."
Her mother said she wasn't apprehensive about her daughter taking the field again.
"She's driven and tough mentally and I think it was hard to see her fight for what she wanted so long in that brace that I was going to let her make that decision," Misty Clendenin said. "If this is what you want, go play softball."
Clendenin said that being a part of the first team championship at Sherman High was special and something she'll carry with her forever.
"We worked so hard for that," she said. "We did that together. I remember hugging (assistant coach) Terri Dawn Williams and telling her that I never wanted something so much in my life."
Coach Henderson said that Clendenin was one of many trend setters on the team and that her contribution was integral to the Lady Tide bringing home the hardware.
"She's a bit of a natural and is very athletic," he said. "She has been around sports all of her life. Her dad (Justin Clendenin) worked with her and people don't realize what that means to get that support at home from someone. Once a player gets to the high school level, a player should have the fundamentals and know the primary components of the sport. As a coach, you may be able to help refine that and you put them in a position to be successful. Haylee had all of the ingredients to be a very good high school softball player."
Henderson added that he was afraid that he wouldn't have Clendenin on the diamond in 2019, but he was more concerned that she not get hurt again.
"I was concerned for her and she proved that she was healed and ready to go to work," he said. "She is energetic, upbeat and very rarely did you see her down. Your expression tells the story in any situation and she was constantly smiling. She's a tremendous teammate."
With a goal of becoming a sports broadcaster while majoring in broadcasting, said that her parents' support made the experience one that she can learn and thrive from.
"Countless hours of their time and resources they invested in me," she said. "They made it possible for me to get to where I am today."
Reporter Phil Perry can be reached at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @philipdperry.