The last chance to make her pitch

New London

Fate may have had something redemptive in mind for Hayley Feindel, the whiz kid softball pitcher at Coast Guard Academy, at the very moment she broke the middle finger on her pitching hand earlier this year.

If only all the sniveling coaches, gutless administrators, NCAA lackeys and breathless umpires that hijacked Coast Guard's last two appearances in the NCAA tournament, penalizing Feindel for illegal pitches, would return to ask Feindel which finger ails her.

"This one," she could say, flashing the appropriate digit to the conga line of perpetrators who contributed to 60 illegal pitches in 2010 and 35 in 2011.

Turns out it was all one big farce.

NCAA representatives sent Coast Guard coach Donna Koczajowski a memo at the beginning of this school year. It read, "(Feindel) was not illegal, never was illegal and stop calling illegal pitches on her."

And now on the eve of the Bears' fourth straight trip to the tournament, Feindel, who has thrown three illegal pitches among 3,258 this season, just might have a fair playing field, although this is an NCAA event, remember.

"The disheartening thing," Koczajowski was saying Tuesday as the Bears prepared for Thursday's first-round game with Ithaca, "is that feedback from other regions indicated few to zero illegal pitches had been called. This is about culmination, not having games dictated by umpires in one particular region. It exposed a flaw in rule interpretation."

It exposed more than that, Coach K.

It exposed the incompetence of umpires and their superiors who should know better, but who are afflicted by that infamous ailment of justifying their own existence. It exposed our ongoing tolerance of anonymity, such as the anonymous coach who sent Donna Vavrinec, the NCAA's softball national coordinator of umpires, an email last year questioning the legality of Feindel's pitches.

Must be nice to hear that coach preach accountability to his or her players.

It also contributed to Feindel's self-doubt, to the point where she sustained a stress fracture working to change her pitching motion.

"Pitching lessons, lots of soul searching," Feindel said Tuesday, reflecting on a career unmatched in the history of Coast Guard athletics.

Straight up: Hayley Feindel is the most accomplished athlete in the venerable history of the academy.

She is NCAA Division III's career wins leader (122 and counting), career strikeouts leader (1,431 and counting), career innings leader (1,000 and counting).

No doubt Feindel would be better known, if even to the local community, if she played a more celebrated sport. No doubt the fraud that has been perpetrated on her and Coast Guard in the last two years would be better known if she played, say, football.

She has an inspiring story, featured on ESPN.com among other places, detailing her childhood in Louisiana, where levees separated her backyard from the Mississippi River. She watched members of the Coast Guard work there as a kid. And after Hurricane Katrina hit, Feindel's watched the Coast Guard save lives, reinforcing the consciousness of her childhood.

And then she wanted to come here.

River Ridge, La., to New London, Conn.

"It's the best decision of my life," Feindel said. "It would be easy to focus on the controversy around softball. But this was a great leadership opportunity. Coast Guard teaches you to be composed under stress."

Leave it to Feindel to write a happy ending. And it could be even happier if the umpires leave her alone this week.

Maybe the Bears can ride her right arm to the World Series.

"Hayley's an 'institution' player," Koczajowski said. "No player that's ever come through our gates has left a mark on a sport like she has. She's put us on the map. We've been successful. But Hayley elevated that. She's irreplaceable. And she's a nice kid. The real deal."

Feindel leaves after school and the season for her post in Kodiak, Alaska, on the Coast Guard Cutter MUNRO. Hayley Feindel will be a deck watch officer. She might even strike out a few Eskimos in her spare time.

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro.

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