Rachelle Zilavec, a graduate of St. Martin’s in Mississauga, Ont. Photo courtesy of Rachel Zilavec

Softball star prepared to hit NCAA basepaths

  • August 29, 2020

Uncertainty surrounding varsity sports in light of the global pandemic has 17-year-old softball player Rachelle Zilavec admittedly anxious but optimistic as she weighs the prospects of even starting her freshman season this year.

The teenager, who recently graduated from St. Martin Secondary Catholic School in Mississauga, Ont., where she excelled in the classroom and on the field, landed a half scholarship to La Sierra University in Riverside, Calif. She committed in March just as COVID-19 lockdowns were coming into effect and while she’s already chosen her courses and set her course schedule, she says the situation is still very touch and go.

“I’m only young for so long and I want to be able to play for as long as I can,” Zilavec said. “I hope that this virus doesn’t stop anyone from playing because it’s such a great sport to be involved in, not just for the game and exercise, but for the people. It feels like home on the field.”

U Sports, the national governing body over university sport in Canada, cancelled all fall 2020 national championships due to safety concerns surrounding the coronavirus. The NCAA sports program in the United States and the various sports and conferences are taking different approaches to the upcoming season, leaving Zilavec and her family in a state of limbo.  Not only is it unclear whether there will be a softball season next spring, but they are also unsure if she will even be able to travel to California or have to begin the academic semester virtually.

Zilavec chose to enter the United States college sports system as an opportunity to help pay for schooling while allowing her to continue to play the sport she loves.

Formerly with the Brampton Blazers program, Zilavec currently plays outfield and third base for the Fieldhouse Raiders in Burlington, Ont. Since quarantine restrictions have been lifted in Ontario, she’s been able to join her teammates and resume club practices with health and safety measures in place.

While the prospective English major has yet to meet her new coaches and Golden Eagles teammates in person, they are finding ways to virtually connect.

“I’m going to be the only player from Canada going out there to that team, so I get calls from the coaches asking how things are in Toronto. I’ve had a few Zoom calls with some of the girls on the team and coaches and I’m sending videos of what I do at my practices.”

Despite the uncertainty, Zilavec says she is drawing on other moments in her life where she’s found the tenacity to overcome. After struggling with an irregular heartbeat as a child, she was diagnosed with a rare disorder called Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome and underwent a heart ablation in 2015.

Zilavec has also been a target of bullying which resulted in a transfer to St. Martin’s.

“She’s a headstrong person and she kept her head up high and that’s what’s gotten her through,” said her mom Theresa, who also says the family’s Catholic faith has been integral to her daughter’s journey.

“She’s got an inner drive that keeps her moving forward.”  

Zilavec has shown her grit on the field as well, saying her most memorable athletic moment came in spring 2019 when she refused to let a fractured finger stop her from giving her all during a tournament in Brampton.

“I went up to bat and it ended up that my first hit was a home run,” she recalled. “My whole team went out to greet me and just lifted me up. I didn’t know it was possible (with a broken finger) until I actually did it.”

“She’s very determined to work hard and she’s an all-around athlete,” said former coach Rob McArthur of the Brampton Blazers. “I remember telling the other coaches that this girl will go through a fence for you. I don’t think she knows how fast and how good she is.”

Zilavec hopes to continue in the sport beyond the college level and possibly help to build the Canadian program as an athlete and coach.

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