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Freedom On The Field

Published on May 30, 2017

Sarah Rennicke

Former Wheaton College softball player Katie Thornton has learned what it means to let go, rise from setbacks, and play with a fresh sense of freedom.

Playing practically in her backyard, the Carol Stream, Illinois, native came to college determined to cultivate her faith even further. However, she didn’t expect the string of setbacks that would welcome her to campus.

She intended to play both softball and volleyball at Wheaton, but those plans changed when Thornton tore her ACL during the spring semester of her senior year in high school.

“I remember being really frustrated and disappointed,” she said. “Senior year was my chance, and the rug was just pulled out from underneath me.”

softball033116-058Her introduction to college was difficult, initially struggling to find her identity surrounded with athletes of equal caliber. Eventually, through peer encouragement and finding firm footing in a reshaped faith, Thornton grew and began to see God’s hand in events around her.

She also observed how softball had become an idol and she had developed a sense of entitlement.

“I had to learn that the gifts and abilities aren’t mine,” she said. “Now, I’ve seen the way God has worked through friendships and time in the fall to focus more on softball. The success I’ve had wouldn’t have happened if I was busy playing another sport for half of the year. It was all in God’s plan.”

She spent her off seasons conditioning physically and spiritually, and her junior year proved quite fruitful as she set the school record for most strikeouts in a season and recorded a .420 average at the plate.

Thornton also earned College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin Player of the Year honors, was named to the First Team All-Great Lakes Region team, and landed on the NFCA Division III Second-Team All-America team as utility, a threat on the pitcher’s mound and in the batter’s box.

But where Thornton really dug in was with her faith.

Growing up in a Christian home, Thornton accepted Christ at a young age. Yet she didn’t fully live out a faith of her own, relying on that of family and friends to coast through. Hearing a sermon at church her junior year in high school, she was convicted to exemplify Jesus Christ in her words and actions and recommitted her life to Him. She joined a Sunday night Bible study with other girls from Wheaton North High School, led by members of Wheaton College’s FCA Huddle.

Her faith launched even further after arriving at Wheaton. She became part of the FCA leadership team on campus, and worked at her first FCA Camp. There, she was challenged to examine why she plays sports and what it means to give God glory. Thornton extended the love and mentorship shown to her by former FCA Chicagoland representative and current Santa Barbara, California, representative Kristin Stockfisch by discipling younger girls herself.

“There are so many times you come home and are like, ‘I don’t know how I am the one who’s in charge of these girls’ hearts,’” she said. “It’s just a privilege and opportunity to pour into them as much as you can.”

The comeback during her junior season and subsequent success brought Thornton to a genuine shifting of gears in her approach to the game of softball.

softball2016-17“I knew I’d put in a lot of work in the off season,” she said. “This year I finally felt like I was healthy and came back playing with this renewed passion and sense of joy being able to play free from pain. I think that definitely fed a lot of my motivation and had a big role in my attitude towards wanting to work harder.”

This again translated to the diamond for her senior season. Selected by the NFCA as a Second Team All-American for a second year, as well as earning College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin’s Pitcher and Player of the Year awards, First Team All-Great Lakes Region while setting the single season records in pitching wins, pitching appearances, innings pitched, and strikeouts.

She’s found an even greater freedom in simply competing with a fresh outlook in the sport she loves, learning to glorify God in both injury and full strength.

“When we headed into a game, what we did was worship. We were not going to sell God short the glory due to His name,” Thornton, who now teaches 4th grade, said.

While Thornton’s found her stride, the evolution hasn’t always been so picturesque.

Thornton’s road has been riddled with injuries and the growing pains of coming into a personal faith. Yet God held her, faithful in her prowess on the softball diamond and in her heart that poured His love into her team and campus. Thornton’s ready for whatever lies ahead. Anything accomplished on top of what she’s already received will be bonus to an already rich journey.

Photos courtesy of Wheaton College (Ill.) Athletics