Above photo of Tatum Stover courtesy of the UMHB Athletics Department
BELTON- In the spring of 2020, things were put into perspective for everyone, including spring-sport college athletes, who saw their seasons abruptly end with no return to the field in sight. Tatum Stover was one of them, But for the UMHB infielder, it was not the first time life was literally put into perspective.
May 16, 2017 is a day most in the Forney High School softball program try to forget. It was the evening that a playoff week turned to immense tragedy. Following a team dinner, Emily Gailano, a 14-year old standout in the program, “was tragically killed leaving a team dinner when she fell as a car reversed to leave the event and was run over,” according to a report by USA Today. Nobody knew what to think, including Stover, then a junior. The tragedy did not seem real. And it occurred in the midst of what should have been an uplifting time for Forney softball: a playoff run.
“It was a traumatic experience,” Stover recalls. “Through the whole grieving process, I couldn’t understand how she died.”
It drove her to pursue a career in the medical field, initially to help families going through similar losses as a medical examiner, before making the change to a future as a veterinarian. A pre-med major at UMHB, she has kept Gailano’s memory with her through what has now been a four-year collegiate career. Even the hardest days on the field are seen as blessings for Stover, who consciously knows she is getting an opportunity that Gailano never got.
“She loved playing softball,” Stover said..
“I actually have a bracelet and a necklace that I wear [in memory of her], and I wear that necklace every time I’m on the field,” she added. “At the time, I didn’t know why God would take her from us, but now looking back on it, I definitely believe there’s a reason why it happened.
“For me personally, I would say it has played a big factor in where my life has gone from then to now. It’s one major motivational factor for why I do what I do and why I give everything I have on the field because I know she never got to do that.”
Stover and her team fought hard through the tragedy, defeating Mansfield Lake Ridge days later in the regional semifinal. A year later, Forney reached the pinnacle of high school softball, claiming the 5A state title in a 4-1 win over Richmond Foster. Stover had eight putouts as the starting first baseman in that contest, which remains one of, if not the most, memorable moments in her career on the diamond.
“I’m not very emotional when it comes to sports, but I will never be able to explain the emotions that were expressed on that field right when that last out happened,” Stover said recently. “Even thinking about it gives me chills, to know that we were able to do that even with what we had gone through. I wish everyone could have an experience like that, because I will never be able to put into words how amazing that was.”
She was consistent at first base throughout that championship season, and has continued to be the Cru’s starter at the position the last two seasons, since transferring from Texas Woman’s University prior to last season.
As she was evaluating her transfer options prior to 2021, Stover came in contact with UMHB head coach Melissa Mojica. It did not take long for Mojica’s program to become a frontrunner.
“When I first talked to Coach Mojica about the whole recruiting process she was very approachable,” Stover recalls. “Normally I’m not very good at talking to those kinds of coaching figures. She made me feel very comfortable talking to her on the phone.”
Soon after, she saw the university, and from that point on, knew that it was going to be at UMHB where she closed out her collegiate career. The exceptional coaching staff, top-notch facilities, winning program, biology major, and faith-based foundation provided the perfect atmosphere.
“I came onto the campus to see it for the first time, and I originally came because I could play softball and they had a good biology program,” Stover said. “But the biggest thing that made me gravitate towards this campus is the Christian faith aspect. This campus is centered around Christianity, so I can play the sport I love and be around other Christians.”
That faith-based aspect also produces a family-type atmosphere across each of UMHB’s athletic programs. It was something Stover noticed immediately, especially when she was warmly accepted by the team’s returners during fall workouts.
“It really didn’t take too long to adjust to everyone, which is surprising because we really only have three weeks to get to know each other in the fall,” Stover said. “But we normally practice as a group outside of the scheduled practices. When I came into it, I was accepted immediately.”
A year ago, Stover saw her new team find its way into the ASC Tournament championship game, falling just one win short of an NCAA Tournament berth.
.“Even though we didn’t win, you could tell everybody left everything they had on the field,” Stover notes.
This time around, in Stover’s last season, UMHB is headed back to the conference tournament. The Crusaders have already clinched their spot, currently riding a nine-game win streak and ranked No. 10 in the nation. But they have higher aspirations that extend past next weekend. It has been 14 years since UMHB last played in the national tournament, though that certainly has the potential to change this season, with an experienced team that prides itself on its team chemistry.
“It has definitely been an amazing season,” Stover said recently. “We have great team chemistry and have a lot of trust with each other on the team. I would say that’s been a big thing this season.”
And they also pick each other up. There is a level of encouragement and support for one another that seems unrivaled within the program. Not every day is any easy one. There have been plenty of ups and downs for both Stover individually, and for the Cru as a whole, over the course of this 2022 season. But her philosophy has remained constant.
“Sports in general definitely drive your faith in believing that God always has a plan,” Stover told True To The Cru. “You may not be performing as good as you’d like or hitting as good as you want, but you have to remember that everything happens for a reason and your time will come.”