It was difficult for Christina Ciolek to hold back her emotions on Sunday when she walked onto the Gertrude Hood Field for the final time.
After all, a big part of her life for the past decade has been spent on that field.
From summer youth camps to high school district tournament games and then four seasons in the starting lineup for the Colonels, Ciolek has a special connection to the place that is home to the EKU softball program.
“(It was) an emotional circle,” Ciolek said after Sunday’s 3-2 Senior Day win over OVC regular-season champ Jacksonville State. “I do have a lot of family and friends who support me and I couldn’t ask for anything more. Winning this last game means more to me than anything.”
That Senior Day victory was just one of the many highlights in an outstanding college career for Ciolek.
The Madison Central graduate has started 200 games in the past four seasons for the Colonels and has been of part of 115 victories.
Heading into the OVC Tournament, which starts today in Jacksonville, Ala., the senior is among the school’s all-time leaders in games played (207) and career at-bats (621).
“It’s been fun to watch her grow up,” EKU coach Jane Worthington said of Ciolek. “She’s become just the best person, leader, student and athlete we’ve had in a long time. It’s been my pleasure to have her on the team.”
Ciolek was an all-state selection as a shortstop her senior season at Madison Central (2010) and she jumped into the starting lineup the next season at EKU. As a true freshman, she started all 50 games at shortstop and hit .257.
The next year, she was moved to the outfield, which at the time was, admittedly, a difficult thing for her to handle.
“It was hard giving up shortstop,” Ciolek said. “I had played there my entire life. But, when you go to college, you have to be prepared to play another position. You can’t come in thinking you are going to have that position. I adjusted and as long as I’m in the game, I’m going to do my job.”
Ciolek committed just one error in the outfield during her sophomore season, but the next year she was asked to change positions again — this time to first base.
“She just wanted to play,” Worthington said. “She did a good job accepting whatever I threw at her.”
Because of her athletic ability, work ethic and leadership ability, Worthington knew the Richmond native would be able to rise to the challenge, even though she had never really played first base before.
“Wherever I’m needed, that’s where I’m going to go,” Ciolek said. “I ended up at first and I enjoyed my last two years there.”
Ciolek set new career highs for at-bats (172), hits (44), home runs (three) and RBI (29) during her junior season.
As a senior, she has been one of the best players in the Ohio Valley Conference. Ciolek currently leads the Colonels in almost every major statistical category — batting average (.335), hits (52), runs (24), doubles (nine), RBI (28) and on-base percentage (.383) — and on Tuesday she was named First-Team All-OVC.
“She was in the cages almost every single day all winter long,” Worthington said. “She bought in. She listened and she was determined. It paid off for her.”
Ciolek was just a .238 career hitter going into her senior season, but she is hitting almost 100 points better than that mark this year.
She’s also seen a dramatic increase in her power at the plate. Ciolek had just five total home runs in her first three years. She already has four homers this year.
She also already has a career-best nine doubles this season.
“I’ve been in the weight room a lot more and just using my legs, not going all with the arms,” Ciolek said.
The senior has also committed just two errors this year and has only 11 strikeouts, the fewest of any regular starter on the team.
“It goes by in the blink of an eye,” Ciolek said. “It feels like my freshman year was just yesterday.”
Ciolek’s career isn’t over yet.
The Colonels (28-21, 15-10 OVC) are the No. 5 seed in the OVC Tournament and will play No. 4 seed Murray State at 4 p.m. today. The double-elimination tournament runs through this weekend.
In addition to her success on the field, Ciolek has been a standout in the classroom as well.
Last week, she was named to the Capital One Academic All-District Softball First-Team as selected by members of the College Sports Information Directors of America (CoSIDA). She will now be placed on the Academic All-America ballot.
The occupational science major has a 3.86 GPA and was inducted into EKU’s Chi Alpha Sigma National Athletic Honor Society in 2013.
“She’s going to be success no matter what she choices to do,” Worthington said. “She’s the type of person that even though she’s not playing that I’d like to keep near the program. If she decides she doesn’t want to be an occupational therapist, she’d make one heck of a coach.”