NORMAL - There were some nights Amber May couldn't sleep because of the pain in her left knee. "I wanted to give up," the Normal Community High School softball star said. There was just one thing overruling her head.
"I just feel like my heart is too much into this game," said the pitcher, who has helped the 29-7 Ironmen qualify for Friday's 5 p.m. Class AA state tournament quarterfinal against 30-4 Chicago Resurrection at East Peoria's EastSide Centre.
Next Wednesday, May is scheduled for her second surgery in 11 months.
"It's a bigger surgery," she said. "They are going to take the front part of my knee, cut it in half and move it over with two screws. Then they are going to take a biopsy of cartilage and freeze it for the future if I need it."
Dr. Brad Cole, one of five surgeons in the nation performing such surgery, will operate on May in Chicago. She will be on crutches for a month and then face five months of rehab. She hopes to resume training in December and pitch for Heartland College next spring.
Her left knee, the one she uses to plant on each pitch, became a problem her freshman year. It gradually got worse as she practiced on concrete and hardwood floors.
Surgery last August was meant to clean up loose cartilage and repair a tendon.
"They tried to take pressure off the kneecap," said May, who also got a staph infection after surgery.
When she resumed training, May could tell the knee wasn't right.
"I think a lot of it was I started too soon," she admitted. "Trying to run in the gym and pitch, I could feel it still."
A specialist in Chicago said May could pitch this season without risk of further injury, but it would depend on how much pain she could endure.
The answer was a lot.
Her kneecap dislocated during a loss to Decatur Eisenhower on April 18 and surgery was scheduled for May 16. But she returned May 1 to defeat Normal West and later decided to delay surgery.
NCHS coach Bob Grimes can't recall another high school athlete who has overcome what she has.
"I don't know the pain she is in. I just know anytime you have bone on bone how painful it is," he said.
May's pre-game ritual includes a visit to a physical therapist, a dose of painkillers and the mounting of two braces. The knee is wrapped with the same kind of tape used on the legs of racehorses.
"After games, I can feel it the next day," she said. "When I go up and down stairs, it hurts. Just walking doesn't bother me much."
May's knee hasn't bothered her performance much. She is 14-2 with a 0.33 earned run average and 296 strikeouts in 127.1 innings.
"She really doesn't plant the same way she did," Grimes said. "She's a little more ginger on it. She's just as effective, probably more so. I would have liked to have seen what she was like if she didn't have this (injury)."
May's 75-14 career record places her in a tie for 26th in state history for victories. Her 1,013 career strikeouts rank 20th in state history and second in school history behind Ali Arnold's 1,056.
At 5-foot-5, May is short by pitching star standards, but she overcomes that with guile.
"She's very deceptive," Grimes said. "I compare her a lot to Ali. Ali is a little bigger."
May is big on weightlifting. She has trained at Bloomington's Sports Enhancement Center for six years.
"She's strong for her size," Grimes said. "She has been clocked at between 60 and 66 (mph). She's throwing as good as a lot of the bigger girls. Her ball moves so well."
Grimes said May would be a Division I recruit if she were 6 feet tall. He predicts a Division I school might yet recruit her after she's done at Heartland.
The heart May has shown has impressed her teammates.
"I think it's incredible, honestly," NCHS senior catcher Jordan Menendez said. "It's a little different out there with Amber because we really don't have to worry so much about what it going on."
May's main concern Friday is that her teammates remain calm.
"Our ultimate goal is to win it all," she said. "We went there my freshman year, and we ended up losing the first game on errors.
"I think this team realizes it's going to be tough. Our heads have got to be in the whole game."
Their pitcher's heart certainly will be.