MUSCATINE, Iowa — Kayla Gaunt cried through it.
As she signed to join Muscatine Community College’s softball team last year, she was flooded with memories of the first time she went through that process.
“It was a fear,” Gaunt said with tears in her eyes. “It’s not anymore. But it’s still touchy.”
That’s because her first attempt at college softball wasn’t what she had hoped for.
Gaunt, a former Muscatine High School pitcher, was the 2010 Iowa high school class 4A pitcher of the year, 2010 Muscatine Journal softball player of the year and co-winner of the 35th Muscatine Community Y Senior Female Outstanding Athlete. She signed with Division-II University of Indianapolis in 2010.
MCC coach Scott Beatty had recruited Gaunt heavily.
“I had a feeling that we might get her, had a very good visit with her and her mom and dad. They wanted to go to a higher level,” he said. “Indianapolis gave them a great opportunity for that.”
Gaunt thought that was the case, anyway, feeling excited to leave her hometown and start her college career even after her final season as a Muskie ended in a regional final.
Once she arrived, she felt everything was great, getting along with teammates and the coaching staff she connected with during the recruitment process.
“Then things started going downhill. We started having conditioning,” Gaunt said. “[The coaches] were just totally different people. I hated them, I really did.”
On Sept. 9, 2011, Gaunt was admitted to the emergency room of an Indianapolis hospital after she asked her roommate to take her.
She was hospitalized for about 72 hours and test results determined she was anemic and had rhabdomyolysis, a condition in which the muscle fibers break down and can result in kidney damage. It’s the same condition that impacted 13 University of Iowa football players three years ago and led to former cornerback William Lowe’s lawsuit against the school, which he filed Monday.
A sinus infection, bronchitis, dehydration and the rigors of softball workouts all played a part.
“When I was in the hospital I remember telling my parents that I didn’t want to go back, and they pretty much told me that if I don’t go back then [they weren't] going to stay at this hospital because [they were here for me] for softball reasons,” Gaunt said. “They were really mad at me.”
She did go back, but it didn’t last. After 10 more days, she decided to leave the team.
“Honestly, after I quit softball I was planning on just going to stay and go to school there,” Gaunt said. “Then I would sleep all day and wouldn’t go to my classes and literally, I would wake up for lunch, go have lunch, come back and sleep and go out and party at night.”
Besides her roommate, who she said she’s still friends with, Gaunt said her teammates and coaches stopped speaking with her.
“I was terrified to leave my room,” she said. “I think that’s why I stayed in there most of the time unless I went to a party at a different campus.”
After her search for a job was unsuccessful, Gaunt returned to Muscatine at the suggestion of her parents, Bob and Anna Gaunt. She had a HON factory job for a while before finishing a cosmetology program and getting a job at Regis Salon in Muscatine.
Playing in slow-pitch softball leagues during the summer reminded her of how much she missed the game.
That’s when she began to think about reaching out to the coach she once passed on.
“I got a call from her. She said she had done a lot of thinking, took a couple years off, missed the game, felt healthy and wanted to try again,” Beatty said. “We sat down, and it was probably about a two-week process of talking to her about what the commitment would be, what it entails physically, mentally, getting back into school, getting back into that rhythm and, realistically, her being a junior — being 21 years old and dealing with freshmen and sophomores. She embraced it.”
For the first time in his 17-year career at MCC, Beatty had a player with a junior mentality.
“Her thought process is a lot different being  years old. She’s been there, done it. She’s had success, she’s had failures, she’s had some low times, but the best thing about it is she keeps moving forward,” Beatty said. “She’s not letting adversity or setbacks define who she is.”
Coming back to the game she once said she had left forever hasn’t been easy, though.
“At first it was pretty difficult, I’m not going to lie,” Gaunt said.
Gaunt and the Cardinals work with trainer Scott Morel, who Gaunt said “whipped our butts back into shape.”
Beatty said there haven’t been any physical problems and that she’s consistently been in the top, upper part of each workout.
Emotionally, though, he knows Indy changed her.
“When we talked about it, she got very emotional about it. It upset her,” Beatty said. “That’s the No. 1 thing we wanted to do was to try and calm her emotions down and mentally focus on what we’re going to do and moving forward.”
Trusting a coaching staff again was the biggest difficulty, Gaunt said, but learned early on that she could rely on Beatty.
“Last semester I had some rough times getting adjusted to my classes and I actually wasn’t passing one of them and he helped me so I could play this semester,” Gaunt said.
Getting to know Gaunt more, Beatty has learned his pitcher is blunt honest, has no problem admitting she doesn’t like school and doesn’t necessarily like to work out. She does them though, he said, because she has goals.
“Do I think Kayla can be very black and white? Yup, in a second. So can I. But what I respect is the fact that she was willing to humble herself, come back and is driven,” Beatty said. “She legitimately is driven to do something great.”
In the Cardinals’ opening weekend, Gaunt pitched seven innings, faced 26 batters and finished with 10 strikeouts, a pair of walks and four hits allowed as MCC went 1-1.
“At first, it was pretty nerve-racking. Then I got over it,” she said. “It was kind of like riding a bicycle.”
Gaunt recorded nearly the exact same statistics from the circle Sunday in a sweep at Fort Scott Community College (Kan.). From the designated-player position, she recorded six hits, three doubles and five RBIs in the twinbill.
“The sky’s the limit for her. If she wants to continue in softball, academically and athletically there’s no doubt in my mind that she could become a Division-I, Division-II pitcher again. It just depends on, when this journey is done here, whether it’s this year or next year, if that’s enough,” Beatty said. “Is it time to move on? You know, maybe she wants to get her job, start a family.
“Whether you are 18 or you’re 40, someday the game is going to stop for each one of us. And that’s going to be up to her, and I think the neat thing about it is, when she decides to walk away from it, it’s going to be on her terms this time.”