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Oakland softball pitcher Erin Kownacki is back and better after perilous medical ordeal

Oakland University softball star Erin Kownacki throws a pitch

Golden Grizzly Sherron Dorsey-Walker plays defense on the court. Photo by Jose Juarez.


icon of a calendarJuly 6, 2017

icon of a pencilBy Fritz Reznor

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Erin Kownacki began her final season with the Oakland University softball team pitching just as effectively as she had in her junior year when she won 16 games and was named First Team All-Horizon League.

During the first two weeks of the 2017 season, she won all three of her starts — including a pair of 1-0 shutouts of Boston University and Ball State — and recorded a save in another win. She was named Horizon League Pitcher of the Week two weeks in a row.

The senior from Armada, Michigan, built upon her early success and finished the season with a 13-10 win-loss record and a 1.67 earned run average, the fourth-lowest single season ERA in school history. She was named to the 2017 All-Horizon League Second Team and led the Golden Grizzles to their second league tournament appearance in three years.

Eighteen months earlier, no one could have imagined it.

“I consider it a miracle that she was able to play at this level again,” Connie Miner says, former head softball coach. “It’s amazing what she was able to accomplish this year.”

Oakland University softball star Erin Kownacki throws a pitch during a game

On October 9, 2015 — five months after leading the Golden Grizzlies to their first ever Horizon League softball championship — Kownacki went to Crittenton Hospital in Rochester after suffering from severe headaches and nausea for several days. Hours later, she was being airlifted to Detroit Medical Center (DMC). An emergency MRI had revealed that Kownacki had a cerebral venous sinus thrombosis: a blood clot in her brain.

Since surgery to remove the extensive clot did not have a high success rate, doctors at DMC decided to administer blood thinners to dissolve it. But Kownacki’s condition regressed. She couldn’t speak, and she began losing feeling in her right side.

“It was horrible watching her go downhill,” Miner recalls. “There were so many tests, so many tears. When you share Erin’s story with medical people, they seem surprised that she has no permanent damage. That whole ordeal could have taken a horrible, tragic turn.”

On her third day at DMC, Kownacki’s health finally started to improve. Each day was another victory: the day she was able to eat solid food again; the day a physical therapist helped her walk the hallways; and, finally, the day she was allowed to go home. In all, she spent 10 days at DMC – “It felt like a month,” she says now – and another week at home recuperating before resuming her fall semester classes at Oakland.

With orders to stay on the blood thinners for six months and with the extremely high risk involved in case of even a minor injury, Kownacki opted to take a medical red-shirt for the 2016 season and return to play her final season in 2017.

“Not playing was hard,” Kownacki says, “probably one of the hardest things I’ve done. But once I knew I wasn’t going to play that season, I was able to slow down and take my time and just let my body heal itself and remove all the stress I had been through.”

Kownacki finished her career ranked among the top three all-time in at least six pitching categories, including second in career wins (41) and complete games (60), and third in shutouts (12) and strikeouts (383). Her career 2.52 ERA is the fourth best in Oakland history.

She was at her best at the Horizon League Championship tournaments, with a 3-1 record and a 1.24 ERA in five games. Kownacki was a perfect 3-0 in the 2015 league tournament, named to the All-Tournament team and received the tournament’s Pitcher Award.

In April of this year, she was honored at Oakland University’s Black & Gold Awards ceremony with the Most Inspirational award.

“Oakland is my second home,” Kownacki says,. “When I was trying to finish up my classes that fall semester after being in the hospital, my professors were awesome in helping me complete them all. And with the extra year in school, I was able to pick up a second degree.”

She adds, “The University has always had my back, and I just hope I was able to represent them in the same way in my five years here.”

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