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Behind the mask: A Mother's Day to remember for Yocke

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4629660.jpegIf there really is a rhyme and a reason to everything in life, perhaps it's no coincidence Megan Yocke was born to play catcher.

The sport's most grueling position, the role demands toughness, leadership and a steady demeanor. It seems Yocke was born with all three.

"She has always been wise beyond her years," UK softball head coach Rachel Lawson said. "Even though she was a freshman, you could have sworn she was a 35-year-old who was in the middle of her professional career. She has always had that. It just comes naturally to her."

When things go wrong in the circle, it's Yocke's job to calm her pitcher down and make her take a deep breath. When runners are aboard and there's a pivotal situation, Yocke rises from her crouch and shouts out instructions. And if there's a play at the plate, it's up to Yocke, 5-foot-7 frame and all, to stand in the middle of the train tracks and hold as steady as a wall.

For four years as the starting catcher, vocal leader, and heart and soul of a turnaround senior class, she's never flinched. Yocke has been as strong as the chest protector strapped to her chest.

But for as invincible as Yocke has appeared to her teammates and as successful as her career has been, there is a pain behind the mask that Yocke hasn't shared with many people.

Not even a semester into her freshman year and just a few weeks since arriving at a campus thousands of miles away from home, her mother lost a battle with cancer.

A day after Yocke's mother passed away in Sunnyvale, Calif., Yocke returned to Lexington and got back to business. For nearly four years she's hidden the pain that hides behind the mask, but on Sunday, what will be Senior Day for Yocke and three other players, she'll be reminded of the great loss she suffered when she began her Kentucky career.

Perhaps its fate or maybe it's just a coincidence, but Yocke will play her final home game on Mother's Day.


'The day you always dread'

It's been about three and a half years since Sue Yocke died from appendiceal cancer, but Yocke still remembers the day she got the call like it was yesterday.

Yocke was sitting in her dorm room when her father, Paul, called with the bad news. Sue wasn't going to make it much longer.

"It was the day you always dread," Yocke said.

The Yockes thought she'd be OK when she was first diagnosed with cancer, but they were told in the months leading up to her death that she may not make it to Yocke's high school graduation. Yocke said she was as prepared as one can be for a traumatic experience like death.

"That was hard, especially having three older siblings and seeing everything they got to go through with mom and dad," Yocke said. "As a teenager you don't really realize what your parents do for them and you don't really appreciate them until something like this happens. I had never thought about my parents not going to my graduation."

Just a few months earlier Lawson had been hired as the new softball coach. It wasn't the same coach Yocke had signed up to play for and she had yet to make a connection with her. Although her mother was sick, Yocke was nervous to tell her coach she was going home, but Lawson didn't think twice in getting her a flight out of Lexington.

When Yocke arrived home to see her mother clinging to life, Sue wasn't happy to see her. They had talked long before of the inevitable scenario and Sue had instructed Yocke to stay in Lexington and focus on softball and school. The way Sue saw it, they had done their grieving already and she didn't want anyone to see her die.

Yocke came home anyway. Part of it was to stand by her mother's side and say her final goodbyes but another part of it was to support her father.

"Seeing Superman break down is definitely not easy," Yocke said.

Sue held on for days. Yocke had planned to be home for a week and it looked like she was going to be able to extend her trip, but Sue passed away the day before her flight. Going back to school was the last thing Yocke wanted to do, but since Sue didn't want a funeral, Paul didn't want his daughter missing classes and drowning in depression.

Paul did what he thought was best and had his daughter on her flight back to Lexington the very next day. He wanted her to get on with her life.


Holding steady in a shattered world

4592151.jpegBy most accounts, Yocke appeared to be back into the swing of things the day she returned to campus. To some it appeared as if nothing happened.

"She came back and you would have had no clue that her world was just shattered," Lawson said.

Fall practice was going on and Yocke was still adjusting to life as a college student. There was lifting, running and practice to attend, in addition to new classes and tutoring requirements Yocke had never dealt with before.

As meaningless as school and softball appeared to be at the time, school served as a distraction and softball served as a sanctuary.

Yocke leaned on a couple of people behind closed doors, especially her roommate and current senior Samantha DeMartine and former UK player and current friend Ashley Dimkich, but she immersed herself in practice the best she could.

The downtime is what hurt Yocke the most. When she was by herself in her dorm room and started to think about her mom, she'd collapse and cry.

One of the few people to see what Yocke was actually going through on a regular basis was Lawson. Although Lawson will tell you she didn't do anything special, Yocke credits her and assistant coach Kristine Himes with helping her move on.

"I can think of several moments where I broke down after a workout and they would just sit with me," Yocke said. "In a situation like that there is nothing someone can really say to make you feel any better. There is nothing someone can do. The fact that they could spend the time of their day to be with me was huge to me."


The foundation of the turnaround

As Yocke grieved behind closed doors, she steadily went about her business on the diamond that spring.

Though just a freshman, Yocke started all 54 games for Kentucky and finished the season third on the squad with a .287 batting average. UK went just 17-37 that season and Yocke admitted she didn't have high expectations of the program's future.

But the following season, with the nucleus of the team back and freshmen pitchers Chanda Bell and Rachel Riley in the mix, Kentucky pulled off a historic turnaround her sophomore season and made the NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history.

The team returned to the NCAA Tournament last year as Yocke hit .325 behind the dish. There was a notion that UK could take a step back this season without the program's all-time best player, Molly Johnson, but Kentucky has built on the foundation of the last two years and is primed to make the postseason for a third straight season.

yocke_web.jpgWith a 35-11 record, including unprecedented success in the Southeastern Conference, Kentucky has even higher hopes for the NCAA Tournament. After falling short in Regionals the past two years, UK is hoping to make it to Super Regionals and possibly the College World Series.

Yocke, who was named Miss Wildcat at Kentucky's annual CATSPY Awards, has been one of the staples of this season's success. She's batting a career-best .346 on the year with 10 home runs and 27 RBI, but Lawson said you can't measure her importance.

"The catcher is ultimately the ruler on the field," Lawson said. "She has been our defensive MVP from just a leadership standpoint all of her four years here. You really can't put a number on that."

More importantly, Yocke has been the spark behind a three-year run unlike anything the program has ever experienced.

"I haven't taught her anything," Lawson said. "The best thing you can do as a coach is recognize all of the great athletes you have and put them in a position to be successful. In Yocke's position, you step back and you kind of let her take control and do her thing."


Playing for her mother

What Yocke doesn't wear behind her mask you can find on her wrists.

Before every game, Yocke wraps her wrists in medical tape and writes her mother's initials. What started out as a way to remember her grandmother in high school has turned into a sacred ritual before every game.

On the bottom side of the tape on each wrist is the initials of her mother and grandmother. Yocke does it to remember them.

"I know I wouldn't be where I am without her," Yocke said. "She got me through everything. It's a nice reminder to think of mom. If something doesn't go right on the field, it reminds me there is something more important in the grand scheme of things."

Like a lot of teenage girls, Yocke butted heads with her mother growing up, but Yocke said her mother was always there for her at the end of the day.

When Yocke struggled with the first few weeks of college, she called her mom and asked her what she was doing in Lexington with a new coaching staff. Although Sue had never met the new staff, she calmed her daughter down and convinced her that Lexington was still the right fit.

Now, four seasons later, Yocke's collegiate career is on the brink of coming to an end.

On Saturday the team will don pink uniforms to raise awareness for cancer. The following day at 1 p.m., Yocke will play in her final regular-season game against Auburn. It just happens to be Mother's Day.

Her father, two brothers and sister will be in attendance, but there will be a noticeable void on the field during Senior Day festivities. When Yocke is presented with a framed jersey and takes a picture with her family and Lawson, she might think about what her mom would have said to her if she could have been there.

"I think she would be proud of the woman that I have become, the friend that I have become to my teammates and the support system that I have," Yocke said. "I think she would be very happy that I stuck it out. She would be really excited that we went from what we were our freshman year to what we have become now, but I think she would be more proud of the person that I am than the softball player I've become."

Lawson thinks Yocke will hold her emotions inside, but when you watch Yocke talk about her mother and think about playing on Mother's Day, you notice a small jewel of water in the corner of her eyes.

The unshakeable captain can't hide these emotions behind her mask. On Senior Day - Yocke's day - she'll be playing for her mother.

"I think mom made it work this way," Yocke said. "She made it fall on Mother's Day so that I knew she would be right there with me."

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