Rachel Funk, team captain of the softball team at Niagara University, has persevered through many unforeseen obstacles during her athletic career, but she never could have expected the abrupt end to her senior season brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Funk said she vividly remembers the day she and her teammates received the news that their 2020 softball season was canceled. The team was in Florida for a set of away games at the beginning of March, and it was just an “ordinary day,” she said. The senior players were all riding in one van to the game when their coach had a phone call meeting with the MAAC conference and Niagara University.
“All he said in the car was ‘So this is a cancellation, not a postponement?’” said Funk.
She said her van immediately “burst into tears,” as the realization hit that this was the final game of their collegiate athletic career.
“It was sad that was how we found out, but we went and played our last game. I do think it was cool that we did have one last game altogether,” Funk said.
When the team was flying to Florida, Covid was on the rise. However, once they arrived, cases rapidly increased and panic set in. Funk said that there was talk about colleges and athletic programs shutting down, but she never imagined it would happen so quickly.
“I was just shocked. No one thought it was real. We just were like ‘Someone wake us up.’ This is not how our senior year was supposed to be,” she said.
At the moment, Funk was unaware that the NCAA would be offering spring sport seniors an additional year of athletic eligibility, so she thought it was her final goodbye to the sport she loved. However, when she heard about the opportunity for a 5th-year, she knew she had unfinished business and wanted to return.
“I really wanted the chance to come back and kinda prove myself… I need that goodbye, like an actual goodbye,” she said.
Funk is from West Seneca, NY and graduated from West Seneca East High School, where she served as the softball team captain for three years. She carried on her captain legacy at Niagara University and is a 5th-year catcher.
Funk said she has had so many great experiences with her team, but one of the most memorable accomplishments was when they made it to the MAAC Championship tournament during her junior year. She said it was a particularly frustrating season because Niagara was ranked low in the MAAC polls. However, with motivation, determination, and hard work, they beat some of the highest-ranked teams at the tournament and placed third overall.
“You can’t get those things back, but you can wish for them in the future, and you can work hard and hope that we get back there this year,” said Funk.
In regards to her goals for this season, she is hopeful that the team will get to play all of their scheduled games and that they will qualify for the championships. Likewise, she wants to strengthen relationships with teammates to create a positive, encouraging atmosphere.
“I just want us to connect again and be able to have that bond on the field,” Funk said.
Though her athletic career at Niagara has been very successful, the journey has not always been easy. After her junior year MAAC tournament, Funk had an MRI on her shoulder. The scan showed that she had a torn labrum, which required surgery. After her injury, she went through a great deal of rehab before she could return to the field.
“I took it really hard because… you take things for granted that you necessarily don’t understand why, but you do take for granted,” Funk said.
At first, it was a struggle coming back from the injury. She said it was very demanding, both physically and mentally, to return after surgery because she was in consistent pain. However, she said the support and encouragement from her coaches, athletic trainers, and parents helped her through the tough times.
“It’s the little things that help you kind of revamp and get back into the swing of things,” said Funk.
She said she is proud that she overcame her injury, especially considering many athletes are unable to return after surgery. In fact, her strength and determination throughout her recovery process played a key role in her decision to return for a 5th year.
“I just knew that I didn’t work so hard to rehab and get better for it all to end like that,” she said.
Her perseverance and devotion are qualities that Funk hopes to share with the younger generation. During her free time, she coaches the ten and under division of the New York Diamond Girls, a premier softball team. She said she frequently tells her athletes to cherish their time in the sport, especially if it is something they are passionate about.
“I tell them all the time, I would die to be your age again and start all over and play,” she said.
Funk said that she is thankful for all of the memories and friendships that softball has provided her, and she is excited for her final season.
“I love this sport, and it’s just, to me, it’s fun to be on the field playing the game that you love to do,” she said.
Funk’s undergraduate at Niagara University was in sports management, and she is now pursuing her Master’s degree in education. She is, currently, a student teaching an entrepreneurship class and hopes to be a high school business teacher in the future.