- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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NEW LONDON, Conn. -- The first thing you notice upon meeting Hayley Feindel are the boots. Big black leather boots that look like they could carry their owner through the longest day and the thickest mud, yet boots that even on this dreary, damp day on the Connecticut coast shine like nothing so much as a freshly waxed bowling ball under the bright sun.
You see all kinds of footwear on college campuses. You don't see many boots like these.
After more than a decade as the softball coach at the Coast Guard Academy, Donna Koczajowski has learned that it takes a particular type of person to wear them.
"I'm really looking for that special kid who can do it in the classroom, on the field and has a goal to be in the Coast Guard," Koczajowski said of her annual search for talent.
And while you see all kinds of pitchers in Division III, you don't see many like Feindel. As a freshman, she already owns essentially every significant single-season pitching record in program history and will likely lead Coast Guard to its first NCAA tournament, if the regular-season champions in the New England Women's and Men's Athletic Conference are awarded an at-large bid after being upset in last week's conference tournament.
She is a rare talent, yet her story makes her skills little more than an anecdote.
"We have to find an academically qualified, athletically qualified kid who wants to forgo a traditional four-year scholarship to do something much harder," Koczajowski continued. "And they have to look down the road a lot more than just a normal kid being recruited by a four-year institution."
Feindel started gazing down that long road early in life. The levees along the Mississippi River marked the edge of her family's backyard in River Ridge, La., a small community about a 15-minute drive from the heart of New Orleans. Growing up, she watched the Coast Guard at work on the iconic waterway, keeping maritime traffic moving and people safe.
And when a young girl asked her dad how she could become a pilot, like the ones she saw guiding the Coast Guard helicopters and airplanes that frequented the skies over the Gulf of Mexico, he told her they were officers and that officers came from service academies.
So even if there weren't any direct military connections in her immediate family, beyond perhaps a couple of little-known relatives who served in the Navy, a seed took root early.
"We were always a very patriotic family, so I thought it was time somebody served," Feindel said. "My brother didn't do it, so I was like, 'OK, I guess it's me.'"
Of course, a lot of kids dream of flying helicopters and a lot of kids dream of serving in the military. But as competitive as entry into any one of the four service academies remains (unlike Army, Navy and Air Force, admission to the Coast Guard Academy is not done by congressional nomination), many of those dreams fade away behind the lure of four years of flip-flops, late-night pizza orders, afternoon classes and weekend road trips.
We were always a very patriotic family, so I thought it was time somebody served
-- Hayley Feindel on attending the Coast Guard Academy
A lot of kids didn't also live through Hurricane Katrina.
As she began her junior year of high school, Feindel didn't envision the storm's moving toward the Gulf Coast during the waning days of August 2005 as anything particularly life-altering. While Katrina ended up changing everything for a region, the storm itself initially wasn't anything new for an area that -- like Oklahoma with tornadoes or California with earthquakes -- was used to them.
"I was thinking "Oh, it's just another hurricane.'" Feindel said. "We had evacuated twice already that year, so we were like, 'Move the TV upstairs, pack everything, get the dog in the kennel.' It was just normal, 'We'll be back Monday.' I seriously didn't think it was anything -- that big of a deal."
The family left its home well before the storm made landfall and headed to Feindel's aunt's home in Baker, La., a short distance north of Baton Rouge. But when they saw the television footage of breached levees and the ensuing chaos in New Orleans, it became clear they would be out of their home for more than just a weekend. They relocated to another family member's home in Georgia for nearly six months, where Feindel spent the semester at Covenant Christian Academy, courtesy of the school's generosity to displaced families.
Some of her extended family lost everything. A grandmother who lived in New Orleans East went to stay with relatives in Virginia and never returned after her house was lost. An uncle in Mississippi lost his house and didn't return. Two cousins went back to the Gulf Coast region after losing homes but had to start from scratch. Feindel and her immediate family were able to reclaim their home after the extended absence, but nearby New Orleans offered a cold homecoming.
"It was just dead," Feindel recalled. "I've never seen New Orleans like that; just quiet, dead. Everything was boarded up, and they still had like the spray-paint X's on the door, you know, like how many people, or how many dogs, cats -- things that were found in the houses. You could see the water line everywhere around the whole city."
Beyond the scenes of devastation, the images that Feindel said struck her time and again were those of the Coast Guard in action. For everything that went colossally and tragically wrong in the hours, weeks and months after Katrina, the Coast Guard was often left to pick up the pieces, from rescuing thousands of stranded residents from rooftops to assessing and managing the environmental fallout of the disaster.
So while softball provided some return to normalcy after Feindel's return to Louisiana, she decided over the remaining year and a half of high school to stop thinking about the idea of serving and start doing the actual legwork literally. She survived an additional year at the New Mexico Military Institute, a prep school that serves as a feeder for the Academy, and the rigorous "Swab Summer," orientation that all cadets go through before their first fall.
Following that road also meant putting softball on hold for more than a year. The prep school in New Mexico didn't have a softball team, and there certainly weren't any chances to sneak away for a few innings during Swab Summer. So aside from the limited fall practices college teams are allowed, this spring at the Academy was Feindel's first chance to pitch competitively in almost two years.
"It's fun," Feindel said of being back in the circle. "[It's a] great release, great team; I love everyone on the team. Really cool camaraderie, you know, because you can't have that up in the barracks between classes. So to get on the field and all that's gone, you can just concentrate on something you know and something you like, it's a great release."
It hasn't been a bad experience for Koczajowski and the rest of the team, either. Feindel has started 33 of the team's 40 games to this point, posting a 30-3 record with a 0.82 ERA and 327 strikeouts in 240.1 innings.
"For us, for Division III, what makes her strong is she's a big, strong individual," Koczajowski said. "So she's a power pitcher, but she has the ability to also throw with movement and off-speed. And that combination, with two to three of those factors, makes her very unique at our level. Usually big Division I pitchers, they have the complete package. Haley has a pretty complete package, especially for us."
Out of the darkest days, some light must come. Feindel's calculus professor at Coast Guard flew rescue missions in the Gulf region after Katrina. Some high school softball stars follow a coach to a big-time program. In her own way, Feindel followed that calculus professor, even if she didn't know him as he flew overhead. And so, as many records as she'll set on the softball field, the importance of her story has little to do with the pitches she throws past hitters.
"Softball is a release, but it's not my main focus right now," Feindel said. "And it's like that for any of the girls, which makes it -- I think it's a key to our success that it's just fun for us. We can go out there and have fun. There's no real pressure. Our real job starts when we go back into the barracks."
Those boots are the attire of someone with a greater mission than strikeouts.
Graham Hays covers softball for ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.