A couple of ibuprofen, Ashley Inman thought, and the headache would go away.
The throbbing began on an April afternoon two years ago, after a home doubleheader between her Mansfield University of Pennsylvania Mountaineers and the Lock Haven University of Pennsylvania Bald Eagles.
The ibuprofen didn’t help. Neither did sinus meds, nor a visit to a chiropractor. Weeks passed. Inman, a relief pitcher, found herself fighting tears each time she warmed up before entering a game.
Still, the sophomore was credited that year with two late-season wins that propelled her team to its first berth in the regionals of the NCAA Division II Softball Championship. Her 1.42 ERA was the team’s best, and she didn’t allow a home run in 54 innings. At the NCAA regional, in relief, Inman picked up the Mountaineers’ only victory in the tournament with a 9-5 win over Indiana University of Pennsylvania.
But the aches – by then in her head, neck and back – continued through the semester and into the summer. One doctor checked her tonsils. Another diagnosed her with migraines. Then, just days before resuming classes in fall 2014, doctors took their first look inside her skull. Inman was still inside the MRI machine when medical staff began peppering her with questions: Did you hit your head? Were you hit in the head with anything? Are you sure you didn’t hit your head?
Inman had a massive bleed on the right side of her brain. The collecting blood, some of it months old, was pushing the left side of her brain against her skull. Her doctors, surprised she wasn’t in a coma, ordered emergency surgery.
“At the time, I looked at the image and thought, ‘This is what hurt me and made me cry half the time when I was trying to pitch?’ ” Inman recalls.
Doctors shaved a strip of Inman’s chestnut hair and cut through bone to extract blood. She drifted awake 30 minutes after surgery. By the next morning, she was asking her surgeon the first question that came to mind: “When will I be able to play softball?”
Four months after the emergency brain surgery, Inman was cleared for workouts. When the 2015 season arrived, Inman returned to her spot in the circle. Instead of pitching as a reliever, she got the starting assignment. “I thought, ‘I can still do this. We got this,’ ” she recalls. “I have great teammates – eight other players, seven behind me and one in front of me.”
On the first pitch, the batter grounded out to second. Inman struck out the next three. By game’s end, she had struck out 11 batters in a two-hit, 6-0 win. And though the Mountaineers struggled last year with a 12-24-1 record, Inman pitched in 75 percent of their wins.
This season, Inman has a different goal: another chance to play in the NCAA tournament, minus the headaches. “To see her come back and fight through everything she did just for the opportunity to come back and play softball again,” says Edith Gallagher, the Mansfield softball coach, “is something that awes us all.”