Fourth-year shortstop Emma Nelson always wanted to play any sport she could get her hands on. The Perryville, Missouri, native grew up a dedicated Cardinals fan and is always happy to turn on a basketball, soccer, hockey, or football game. A three-sport Academic All-State honoree in high school, Emma chose to play her first love—softball—at Stagg Field.
“My mom taught me to play catch when I was three or four. That’s a funny story—she threw the ball and hit me in the face, giving me a bloody nose. I, of course, cried and was upset. She said, ‘If you catch it, it won’t hit you in the face.’ Needless to say, I think I caught every throw from there on out,” Nelson joked.
Looking at Nelson’s stats, at first glance one might assume that simply playing catch came just as easy playing for the Maroons. In three seasons, plus two games of a shortened senior season, Nelson played in 89 games, amassing 213 assists, 143 put outs, and 18 double plays. Additionally, she was just as productive in the batter’s box, holding a career 0.363 on-base percentage and racking up 69 hits.
Nelson’s favorite part of the game is “the intricacy of strategy that seeps through all aspects of the game.” As a shortstop, “defensively [she] could really read the other team and our own to make decisions on position, where plays should happen, and so forth. Offensively, figuring out pitcher’s tendencies, being aggressive on the base paths, reading the other team’s defense were all strategic.”
Her teammates are quick to praise her athletic abilities as well as her leadership on the field. Third-year and standout second baseman Abby Hayes spoke of Nelson’s on-field presence: “She is always contributing to the team, whether it is through her coaching abilities or her athletic abilities. Emma constantly pushes those around her to become better. She shares her ample softball knowledge with others and is always offering advice for ways in which we can improve. Emma is our clear leader on the field; she is both confident and caring. She embodies everything a shortstop should be and much more.”
Second-year third baseman Savannah Pinedo echoed Hayes, saying, “She’s made tons of diving plays and great reads, but it’s her attitude I’ll never forget.”
What many did not see behind Nelson’s impressive statistics and leadership abilities was a constant battle with injuries. Rarely battling injuries before college, Nelson encountered four significant injuries throughout her time as a Maroon. She spoke of her freshman year, saying, “Being a spring sport athlete, the grind all year is hard. We work from day one of classes in the fall until games finally start up during spring break. I was excited for the big trip to Florida and the opportunity to be the starting shortstop on my new team. However, that all came to a screeching halt when I found out I had an ovarian cyst. I ended up having to have surgery over spring break to have the cantaloupe sized mass removed. Three weeks post-surgery, I was released to begin to softball again. Two months of no activity to go straight into games was not an easy transition. But, we made it work. I played every game from that week on and we went on to make it to the NCAA Tournament.”
Nelson was not only a key piece of UChicago making the tournament, but also an NCAA All-Regional Team selection. During her second year, Nelson played through a partially torn labrum in her throwing shoulder, and, in her junior year, she developed another cyst and had yet another surgery. Albeit during a shortened senior season, Nelson battled a blot clot all year, visiting the emergency room and ICU. She slowly but surely worked her way back onto the field, and played in both of the Maroons’ games this year.
Hayes spoke of Nelson’s toughness, saying, “I have never seen someone more resilient than Emma; she faces adversity head on and conquers it. Emma has shown remarkable strength in persevering through her injuries and the recovery process.”
Pinedo especially admires Nelson’s love of the game. “Practice often became so instilled into my routine that I’d lose sight of how important it is to improve every day and love the game of softball, but that is something Emma never seemed to forget. Her drive to get better inspired me and her love of softball reminded me how lucky I am to be a UChicago softball player…. She has been the only teammate I’ve ever had to impact the way I view the game of softball.”
Perhaps Nelson’s greatest legacy is not her impressive accomplishments on the field but off the field, both academically and as a friend to her teammates. “I tried to be good about being keyed into what my best working environment looked like and not worrying about if it differed from those around me,” Nelson said of balancing UChicago’s rigorous academic coursework with competing in softball at a high level. “Whether that was locking myself away in the third-floor stacks at the Reg to grind out a paper or heading to Crown at 10 p.m. to get some swings in—I found what worked for me during specific points in my college career. And then, I offered to bring others along with me.”
Bringing others with her will be Nelson’s lasting legacy on UChicago softball. Second-year outfielder Lainey Hughes calls Nelson the “one person I always count on as a player, a leader, and a friend. She is one of the first people I go to with absolutely everything—advice, classes, softball related topics, and especially food plans…. She is one of my most loyal and thoughtful friends, and she will always be a big part of what my college softball experience so good, even though I only got to play a full season with her for one year.”
While “the game will always have a piece of [her] heart,” Emma plans to work as a paralegal for a few years before going back to school to pursue a law degree. Pinedo described what everyone knows about Nelson: “Emma is one of the hardest working people I’ve met, and I know she’ll go on to do great things because quitting just isn’t in her.” For our sake, we hope she ends up taking some of that greatness back to the softball field.