LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The National Fastpitch Coaches Association announced this week that Southern Illinois University associate head coach Jen Sewell is the 2018 recipient of the Association's Donna Newberry "Perseverance" Award.
The award recognizes an NFCA member coach who has demonstrated extraordinary strength of will and character in the fight to overcome a physical, mental, or social adversity.
Sewell, who was diagnosed with primary sclerosing cholangitis (PSC) in 2011, had dealt with the symptoms of the disease for years — thinking it was the stomach flu or food poisoning — without knowing the real cause. A trip to the emergency room during a tournament at the University of South Florida finally changed all that, as doctors finally properly identified her ailment. Previously, she had often been told she needed to simply change her diet or eat more fiber.
PSC is a chronic disease that slowly damages the bile ducts. In patients with PSC, the bile ducts become blocked because of inflammation and scarring, which causes bile to accumulate in the liver, where it gradually damages liver cells and causes cirrhosis. As the cirrhosis progresses, the liver loses its ability to function and gradually deteriorates until the need for a transplant arises. The disease has no cure and is often associated with Walter Payton, the Chicago Bears' Hall of Fame running back, who succumbed to the illness in 1999.
Sewell said she had known something wasn't quite right with her health for a number of years, but it felt like she had been "punched in the gut" when she heard the true cause of her trouble.
"To be completely honest, my very first thought was, 'There goes my coaching career,''' Sewell said. "No one is going to want a sickly coach around. This business is not kind to those who can't grind. I knew I was a good coach. I could coach any player in any position. I had huge goals and dreams, and I felt like in that moment it all went down the drain."
Once the initial shock wore off, Sewell made a strategy for living her best life with PSC. She continued to work on her master's degree and get onto the softball field, and she even found time and energy to compete as a CrossFit athlete.
"Four MRCPs, nine ERCP procedures, five colonoscopies, three EGD scopes, five total stents, probably 10 total bouts of cholangitis and hundreds of blood draws later," Sewell said. "It's about just being physically and mentally tough. Getting to coach and making it to the field is the goal, so it takes what it takes to get on that field."
Her positive attitude has helped her endure near-daily bouts of fatigue and intense itching and pain associated with her liver.
"Fatigue is just a part of PSC. It's there whether I rest or not, so might as well go hard," Sewell said. "I'm not hurting myself by getting after it coaching. And, in fact, the softball day makes it easier for me. I can go in the office in the mornings and about the time my fatigue hits me, it's time to be at the stadium. And once I get on the field, I don't feel a thing.
"I throw hours of BP, I still catch in the bullpen, and I can fungo until my hands bleed. I let it rip every day. I'm there to empty the tank," she continued. "Do I experience fatigue at some level every day? Yes. Are there days where I feel flu-like? Yes. But I can go at 95 percent. I don't need to feel 100 percent to coach at 100 percent."
The Salukis have finished in the top half of the Missouri Valley Conference in on-base percentage in nine of Sewell's 10 seasons and have finished either first or second in the league in that category in five of those years. In seven of those seasons, they have finished either first or second in the league in walks drawn, and top-four in slugging percentage.
Southern Illinois has compiled a .596 winning percentage overall and a .635 winning percentage in league play during Sewell's tenure. In 2017, the Salukis won their first MVC tournament championship since 1991, and returned to the NCAA tournament for the first time since making five straight appearances from 2003-07.
Making sure she is able to work hard on the field requires hard work behind the scenes. It is not uncommon to see Sewell slip off during the fourth or fifth inning of a game to have a snack or take her medicine. She always keeps a "PSC survival pack" nearby, consisting of antibiotics, pain medicines, water, electrolytes, protein and extra food. Sewell has made PSC part of her game-day routine, and that's helped her manage all her medical issues, to give her as normal a life as possible.
"It was a huge change in lifestyle — diet, better exercise, meds, appointments after appointments, and a lot of procedures," Sewell said. "But I coached through it all and restarted my degree. Since then, I've accomplished so much. I got my master's in kinesiology, won a CrossFit competition, and coached through so many milestones here at SIU. Life went back to a new normal. The grind of softball season is great for that. There is no time to sit and feel sorry for ourselves."
Back in 2011, doctors told her that she would most likely need a liver transplant in five to seven years, but after seven years, she has yet to be added to the transplant list. Her Model for End-Stage Liver Disease (MELD) scores are still low enough where she doesn't qualify for the list. This past season, the Saluki softball team partnered with Midwest Transplant Services to help raise awareness for organ donations, and Sewell continues to preach "worrying about today."
"I'm very big with our team on worrying about today," Sewell said. "I have very little control over the progression of my disease, but for the most part I can deal with it and go hard today. We are a sum of our efforts on all the previous todays. Get going on the things that light you up on the inside. I want people to get the right message from just being around me.
"Do it. Whatever 'it' is. With huge effort. Today," she urged. "If I had sat around from diagnosis until today thinking, 'Oh, I don't feel 100 percent today, I'll try it tomorrow,' there just wouldn't have been much being achieved. I would have missed out on so much!"
Sewell will be recognized and receive her award at this year's NFCA National Convention on Dec. 5-8 at the Sheraton Grand Chicago.
Newberry, the all-time winningest coach in the history of NCAA Division III softball when she passed away in November 2010, spent 36 seasons with Muskingum College athletics. During that time, she transitioned the Muskies from a slowpitch team to a perennial national fastpitch contender in Division III.
Over those 36 seasons, Newberry amassed a record of 906-419-1 and helped guide Muskingum to 17 conference championships, 18 NCAA regional appearances, eight national championship appearances and the 2001 NCAA Division III national championship. Newberry was the only Division III coach to be named national coach of the year in two sports – softball and basketball. As Muskingum's women's basketball coach, Newberry earned 403 victories and three OAC championships.
She was a 10-time Ohio Athletic Conference Coach of the Year, a seven-time NFCA Regional Coaching Staff of the Year honoree and in 2001, the Muskingum staff was named as the NFCA National Coaching Staff of the Year. In 2008, Newberry was inducted into the NFCA Hall of Fame.
Newberry demonstrated her perseverance as she coached what would be her final season in the spring of 2010. While undergoing chemotherapy treatments during her third bout with breast cancer, she led the Lady Muskies to the Ohio Athletic Conference tournament for the 25th consecutive time.
In the months before her death, Muskingum dedicated its softball field in her honor, renaming it the Donna J. Newberry Softball Field. In addition, Newberry finished a book about her coaching career and experiences — "You Must Play to Win: A Coach's Journey from the Pit to the Pinnacle."