May 7, 2009
By Larry Watts
You know you have arrived when your teammates tag you with a nickname. And it didn't take long for the Northwestern softball team to hang one on freshman Adrienne Monka, even if they had to steal it from her mother.
"Usually they would just call me Monka," she says. "Nobody uses my first name unless it's in the Rocky context: 'Yo, Adrienne.'
"But during one of our tournaments early in the season, some of the girls overheard my mother calling me 'Love' when she cheered. She's been calling me that ever since I was little, so that has sort of caught on with my teammates."
But these lively Wildcats have taken it to another level. Every time Monka delivers a hit, the players on the bench put their hands together in the form of hearts.
And there's been plenty to love about Monka for Northwestern fans. In her first season, the powerfully-built right-handed hitter has already delivered 19 home runs, which is tops in the Big Ten and four shy of the school's single-season record. She also leads the Big Ten in runs batted-in (49) and slugging percentage (.966) and stands second in on-base percentage (.514), total bases (113) and batting average (.410). During one recent stretch, she had eight consecutive hits, which is tied for ninth-longest in NCAA history.
Yet had it not been for three hip surgeries, this Rancho Cucamonga, Calif. native might have been delivering this damage for UCLA, where she thought she was destined to play as a youngster.
"My heart was set on going to UCLA," she says. "Growing up in California, UCLA was so good and big (in softball). My traveling coach was a good friend with the UCLA people and they were recruiting me at a young age. Then this hip stuff happened and everything kind of stopped."
Monka's hip problems began in 2003. Although she says the injury could have happened earlier, the intense pain really set in while warming up for a traveling practice.
"We had a coach who was like an athletic trainer and she was trying to stretch me out," she says. "I was lying on my back and she had my legs up to my chest, pressing down on my legs. I felt a pop, but I didn't think too much of it or say anything for a couple of months, but the pain wasn't going away."
The first doctor Monka visited diagnosed the injury as a strained ligament and put her through nine months of physical therapy. It was later discovered that she had suffered a torn labrum, but surgeries in 2004 and 2005 still didn't solve the problem.
The following year, Monka's father took her Vail, Colo. to visit Dr. Mark Philippon, the hip surgeon who would eventually perform surgery on New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez. Philippon ended up reconstructing the entire labrum, using a piece from her upper thigh.
Back on the diamond, the catcher/first baseman was the MVP on her high school team the final two seasons and wrapped up her career with a .429 batting average and .812 slugging percentage.
Even though UCLA had backed off, she still took an official recruiting trip to visit the Bruins. But what was once her dream didn't seem to be reality.
"They weren't very welcoming and I didn't like the vibe there," says Monka, who also took official visits to Fresno State and Northwestern. "Maybe it was their personality, but I'm a very laid back person and it just didn't feel right."
She found that missing ingredient on her visit to Evanston, where the family approach used by coaches Kate and Caryl Drohan made her instantly feel at home.
"I used to go to the Palm Springs Classic a lot when I was younger," she says. "I like to watch the team dynamics and Northwestern seemed to be so unique to other teams. I always remembered them being such an upbeat team. I loved their attitude and energy; they looked like they were having so much fun.
"And now that I am here, I can fully understand why. All the girls take care of each other. Kate and Caryl don't give you a chance to feel homesick because the players get you involved in a lot of activities as soon as you arrive."
Holding down the No. 3 slot in the Wildcats' powerful lineup, opposing pitchers have found it impossible to pitch around the rookie first baseman. Career home run leader Tammy Williams in the two hole protects her while Michelle Batts, Nicole Pauly and the Dyer sisters, Erin and Kelly, are dangerous long ball threats right behind her.
"I didn't really think I would come in here and make this kind of impact right away," she says. "I was just looking for playing time, but it has just been a crazy year and so much fun. I had never hit more than 10 home runs before in one season, but a lot of fields I played on didn't have fences and I'm not the world's fastest runner. The hip surgeries didn't affect my speed."
Monka attributes her increased power to some minor adjustments hitting coach Caryl Drohan has made to her swing.
"I've had a lot of good hitting coaches over the years, but Caryl has been incredible and she has increased my power by like 1000 percent," Monka says. "She only tweaked my swing a little bit, but it has given me more lift on the ball."
However, despite her increased power, she has yet to become a member of the exclusive Roof Club. Only three players in Northwestern history have planted a ball on the roof of Welsh-Ryan Arena, which is nestled right behind the left field fence at Sharon J. Drysdale Field.
"Caryl says my swing is too level and it takes a loopy swing to get one up there," she says. "I would love to prove her wrong, but I do hit the ball hard. I put one up on the roof against DePaul, but it was foul."
With the graduation of veteran catcher Erin Dyer, Monka has helped warm up pitchers in the bullpen but isn't sure if returning behind the plate is in her future. The Cats already have two returning backups plus an incoming recruit for catching duties.
"I just love being out on the field with all my teammates," she says. "I wouldn't mind going back there because I love being involved in every pitch of the game. I think my hip would be all right through all that crouching."
According to Monka, the only problem her hip has given her has been during the cold weather in Evanston.
"It gets a little stiff then, but I have learned to just shake it out" she says. "I just have to be super careful when I'm on ice, which is a new experience for me."
Monka is happy to prove any doubters wrong. Her rookie experience at Northwestern has been nothing but one big Love fest.