Ehren Earleywine still bites his lip at the memory, to think how close he came to losing her. In October 2009, in her junior year at Williamsville North, Corrin Genovese was being courted by many of the top college softball teams in the nation. But in her heart, she wanted Missouri. She had watched the Tigers on ESPN and felt a strong connection with Earleywine, the coach, during a previous phone conversation.
The problem was, Earleywine was running out of scholarship funds. He had signed two second basemen, Genovese's position. He liked her, but recruiting can be a cruel game at the elite levels. So he told Corrin's parents, Tony and Karen Genovese, that it would be a waste of money to make their scheduled visit to Columbia.
Then Earleywine got a phone message from Corrin.
"I could tell she was crying over the phone," Earleywine said Friday. "She still wanted to come down. The last thing she said was 'I've just got to see it!' "
So they visited, anyway, and she loved it. The family atmosphere, the campus, the genial nature of the people. They also got to see Mizzou's huge win over Oklahoma in football.
Karen asked one vital question: "On your worst day, Corrin, when you're down and you can't see the light of day, when you're apart from your family, where would you feel OK?"
Corrin looked at her mother. You could see on her face the answer was Missouri.
"It was like a brighter place to me," Genovese said. "They could see I lit up when I was on campus."
Earleywine, a former college baseball player and fast-pitch softball star, saw it, too. He instantly began working to find more scholarship money for Genovese. She signed with Missouri soon after. "I said, 'How wrong can we go with a kid this athletic, this versatile?' " the coach recalled.
Today, Earleywine says Genovese would be his first choice. Of the Tigers' 10 freshmen, she has had the greatest impact. Genovese has started every game for Missouri, which is ranked ninth in the country. She's hitting just .224, but she's third on the team in runs and walks, and leads in triples.
But it's defensively where she has been lighting it up. Genovese played second and third base before settling in
two months ago at shortstop. She was named Defensive Player of the Year in the Big 12, a remarkable feat for a freshman in a major conference.
Genovese, 18, has also become a leader and emotional spark on a 46-12 Mizzou team that is hosting the NCAA super regional this weekend against LSU. Mizzou, gunning for a fourth straight trip to the Women's College World Series, is favored in the best-of-three series, which concludes today.
"It's definitely been exciting," Genovese said Thursday from Columbia. "The players on those other teams used to be my idols. Now they're my rivals. It's actually become more of an expectation here to make the World Series. When we dropped out of the Top 10 at one point, people in Columbia were asking, 'What happened to the softball team?' "
That's the sort of standard she was seeking when she decided on a college. Missouri has been a rising power in six years under Earleywine, who has averaged 48 wins a season in Columbia. Genovese also wanted that sense of family, the feeling of being nurtured as a person, not just an athlete.
Her mother's words became prophetic when Genovese's "worst day" arrived twice in two months when both of her grandfathers died. Her paternal grandfather, Dom Genovese, died just before Thanksgiving. Her maternal grandfather, Tom Dikeman, passed away on Friday, Jan. 13, after an eight-year battle with cancer.
"When things couldn't possibly get worse, I had caring people all around me," she said. "Caring coaches, caring professors. My teammates called me hourly. I'll always have great memories of college, the good times and the games we won. But what I'll remember is people being there when I needed them the most."
Corrin and her older sister Maddi, who plays college lacrosse at Winthrop, wear Livestrong bracelets in honor of Grandpa Tom. It reminds them of his toughness. Karen said Tom, who suffered from polio, broke his arm while sledding at Delaware Park as a boy. He stuck it back in his coat and kept playing.
"That became our family motto for life," Karen said. "Put your arm back in the coat and keep on going."
Genovese wears one of Grandpa Dom's old white undershirts under her Mizzou jersey. Dom used to "hypnotize" the girls by having them stare at blinking lights in the dark and focus their mental energies. Later in life, Corrin realized it worked.
It hurts to know neither grandpa got to see her play in college. But Genovese feels their presence. In a tight situation, she'll say "Come on, grandpas." Dom's big old white shirt will be sticking out, and she'll rise to the moment.
"It's a reminder to me," she said. "What would Grandpa Dom tell me? I don't care if it's 100 degrees. I'm not taking off that undershirt."
Her older brother, Garrett, who played baseball at Niagara, made her tougher. "He beat my butt when I was little. When I was 9 of 10, he threw me fastballs across the driveway. He never let up. He put me in hockey equipment and made me play goalie. He taught me not to be afraid of anything."
Genovese gives her parents credit for her hands. Neither was much of an athlete. Tony, who works in a family-owned door and hardware business, plays guitar in a local blues band, Jelly Jar. Karen is an art teacher at St. Mary's in Swormsville. She runs a cafe in the Jewish Community Center. Music, art, hard work.
"You put it all together, the game is a piece of art," she said. "My coach tells me everyone can throw and catch, but you should try to make it look pretty."
She made enough pretty plays to catch the eyes of the Big 12 coaches, who gave her the top defensive honor as a freshman. Of course, it's hard to miss Genovese on the field. She's a chatterbox, a ball of competitive energy and fire. She's a communications major whose goal is to become a sportscaster, "the next Erin Andrews."
"If a team is silent in the field," she said, "it reflects a lack of confidence." She became a leader. After playing her at second and third, Earleywine put her at shortstop, where she thrived.
"No matter where we put here, she was our best defensive player," Earleywine said. "At last, I realized I was the dumbest coach in America if I didn't put her at shortstop."
Earleywine called Genovese a "natural-born leader." Rick Bubar, her coach at Williamsville North, concurs.
"She has that personality," Bubar said. "People just want to follow her. I've always said she's a better person than a player. But she was never snobby or aloof. Kids learn from her. It really helped my team this year. We weren't expected to be real good and we're in the (sectional) semis. They got to see what she's done in her life and where it took her and they stepped up their work ethic a little bit."
Genovese is a role model for local softball. You could see her this weekend on ESPNU. At least 10 family and friends made the 16-hour trek to Mizzou, including her parents; her sister; Bubar and his daughter; three members of the Nappo family; her former North teammate, Courtney Kadish; and boyfriend, Joe Licata, the former Will South football star and current UB quarterback.
Genovese played all sports and could have played college basketball. But football is her first love. In eighth grade, she was asked to try out for football. Her parents said no. But she played girls powder puff and was a star.
It would be a thrill to play pro women's softball. "But I'd be more excited to play professional football," she said. "I'd be like Brad Smith (Mizzou grad, current Bill). A runner and a thrower."
So it's no wonder Earleywine wants to kick himself when he realizes such an irrepressible talent nearly got away.
"Can I add one more thing?" he said. "As long as I've been in coaching, I haven't had a kid who reminds me as much of myself as a player. My dad came to practice. He's 67. He said, 'You know who that kid reminds me of? You. She's a spitting image in female version of what you were at that age.' "
As his shortstop said on the phone once, you've just got to see it.