Cali Bartholomew was once told she would never hear or talk.
Now the Sauk Valley Community College sophomore can not only hear and talk, she lets her actions on the softball diamond speak volumes for her.
The 2011 Harlem High School graduate is in her second year as a starter for the Skyhawks, and she's especially looking forward to the current campaign. A herniated disc in her back, due in part to constant jumping in her other sport of choice, volleyball, slowed her last spring.
"I'm ready to show what I've got," Bartholomew said. "Everything that [Sauk Valley softball] coach [Bob Lowe] preaches, I believe in, and it's already showing. Over spring break, I was pitching a lot better. I was more confident in the batter's box. I believe in my myself and my team."
Excelling in athletics once seemed like something that would be on the back burner for the personable Bartholomew, who discovered at a very young age she wasn't quite like other youngsters. She was almost completely deaf.
"When I was 1, maybe 1˝, my parents would say my name, but I would never listen," Bartholomew said. "I would just take off running. They were like, OK, something's not right."
Her parents, Matt Bartholomew and Tracy Egan, took her to a doctor and discovered she had significant hearing loss in both ears, and her speech was also affected. By age 3, she was fitted with hearing aids that took care of much of her problem.
The aids increased her hearing from about 20 percent in the more-damaged left ear and 30 percent in the right ear to about 90 percent in both ears. She is proficient at sign language and reading lips, but can also hear well enough to carry on a normal conversation under most circumstances.
"For me to be able to be here and be able to hear at 90 percent, and talk as well as I can is a great thing for my family," Bartholomew said.
Bartholomew's hearing aids cost about $5,000 for the pair, and she's on her third pair in the 17 years she's used them. As her ears have grown and technology has improved, she's had the need for new aids.
She pointed out the hearing aids have never been damaged in an athletic competition, even when they've popped out while in the heat of a volleyball rally or sliding into a base in softball. She is careful to keep them clean and dry, and removes them when it starts raining heavily and she's outside.
"About the only problem I've had is my dog got into my room once and chewed on them," she laughed.
Bartholomew participated in multiple sports growing up, but settled on volleyball and softball at Harlem. She was a libero on the volleyball team, and an all-conference pitcher for the Huskies in softball.
Her summer softball team, the Adrenaline, was coached by Lowe, and when Lowe came to Sauk Valley 3 years ago, it was pretty much a done deal Bartholomew would follow after her time at Harlem was done.
Bartholomew played volleyball at Sauk Valley as a freshman, but it led to a back injury that had her sidelined for about 10 weeks of the softball season. She didn't play volleyball last fall, and is primed to have a big season.
As a pitcher, she is No. 2 in the Skyhawks' pecking order, behind standout freshman Kiara Kaleel of Amboy. The plan is to have Bartholomew ready as a spot starter, but her primary role will be to relieve Kaleel if needed.
"She is very impressive as a freshman pitcher," Bartholomew said. "You can just tell she's got a lot of character. She's very poised, and I have the highest respect for her."
The Skyhawks went 7-4 in their annual spring break trip, this year to southern Illinois, then to South Carolina. Bartholomew tossed 11 2/3 innings, allowing 13 hits and three earned runs for a 2.31 earned run average. She struck out seven batters, with four walks and one hit batsman.
"She knows at this level it's not about 150 strikeouts," Lowe said. "It's about getting them to hit the ball where you want them to hit it, and she's very good at that. It makes her a great relief pitcher. She does occasionally start, but it's more when I have people on and I know we've got to get the ball on the ground to get an out that she comes in."
At the plate, Bartholomew is batting .346 (9-for-26) with a double, eight runs scored and five runs batted in.
Defensively, Bartholomew mans center field, and Lowe cites her speed, intelligence and ball-tracking ability as attributes that allow her to handle a demanding position. Something that is not an issue is her ability to communicate.
Lowe uses hand signals to manipulate the defense, or to perhaps put on a play such as a pickoff.
"It's all about signals, and really, it has no effect at all," Lowe said. "If anything, it builds character for her and everybody else on the team."
When Bartholomew is pitching, she uses traditional pitcher-catcher signals to determine the type of pitch and location.
In the field, two SVCC corner outfielders, Courtney Shepard and Hannah Schmidt, occasionally communicate with Bartholomew via sign language, especially if it is windy outside and sound doesn't carry as well. That is between pitches. When a ball is in play and Bartholomew is involved, there is one rule that must be followed.
"The girls know with me being in center, you don't talk to me," Bartholomew said. "You don't call the ball. You don't tell me 'fence.' You do not talk. If I think you are talking, I will think you're calling the ball, and I won't go after it, and then we'll both be in trouble."