Sun soaked the 300-plus fans that lined the bleachers and leftfield fence at Mike Sheppard Sr. Field on April 22. Blue and white balloons hung from bleacher corners, posters hung from fences and a mural of the four softball seniors: Alannah Basile, Sara Foster, Alyssa Prukop and Alexis Walkden, rested behind home plate.
Perhaps revitalized by the scene, Seton Hall did not come out like a team that had just dropped both ends of a doubleheader the day before; the Pirates were inspired, and how could they not be? Today was the formal goodbye to four seniors, in particular Walkden, whose name will be uttered for generations, and No. 23 potentially retired.
However, the game did not go as planned, as after taking a 3-0 lead in the first inning, Creighton slowly and methodically fought back, with a controversial call in the middle of it all, to tie, and eventually, take the lead. The game was in many ways a metaphor for Walkden’s final season, one in which the Pirate third baseman from rural Cibolo, Texas dealt with injuries and difficulties at the plate.
“I remember the first game I had to sit out was in Florida, it was against USF,” Walkden said. “And I remember sitting there and being like, ‘Aww, this sucks,’ because it was the first time I had not started in a game since my freshman year. So, when that happened – I always try to be that person that led by example, in like, the way that I play; I wanted to play well, and, be there for my teammates. So, it really showed me a way to be there for them, in a different way.”
The injury taught Walkden a new way to lead her team from all angles. Beyond her leadership on the field, Walkden is a secondary education and mathematics major, with the distinction of being only the second person in Seton Hall history to win the Big East Female Scholar Athlete of the Year, an honor she took home in February.
Walkden’s goal is to follow in her mother and both her grandmothers’ footsteps and become a teacher. That calling inspired her to tutor teammates and other students, as she tried to get them to speak the language of math.
“When I got here, I tutored in the academic center, and I just really – I love math; which is weird, I know, but, I really love math,” Walkden said. “And so, being able to show people that love, and having other people, kind of, like, come around to it, and understand it, that makes me really happy.”
Her passion for teaching and assisting others has led her to different pursuits, from an involvement in equestrian therapy back in Texas, which helps stimulate cognition in children on the autism spectrum, to her status as a trained facilitator in the One Love Foundation, which was created for former Virginia lacrosse player Yeardley Love to advocate against unhealthy relationships and domestic violence.
“I think that coming so far away from home, here in general is really different from where I am at home,” Walkden said. “When I first went out, for the first time, I was very…overwhelmed I guess, I saw people get into situations where they were in trouble, different situations like that. So, as a friend you could always go and talk to them, but, I really wanted to know the right way to facilitate that conversation, more than just being a friend, or, like, a shoulder to cry on.”
As hard as any teaching exam, Walkden’s maturity and composure were tested on a game-by-game basis through the first 11 games of conference play in 2018, as the 2017 Big East Player of the Year batted .130, going 3-for-23 at the plate.
“I’m going through one [a slump],” Walkden said at the time. “I’ve been through and am growing through. And confidence is really the only thing that brings you out of that. Knowing that, 0-for-10, 0-for-whatever, every time you go up to the plate, you have a chance to be successful.”
The lack of production was not how she envisioned to start her senior season in-conference, but, her struggles proved to be a great lesson for her four freshman teammates: Baylee Allender, Janae Barracato, Payton Beaver and Jaden Tate, with all managing the highs-and-lows of collegiate softball to make a sizeable impact in their first year.
Beaver and Barracato are first and third in both games started and batting average for the Pirates, something that, according to Seton Hall coach Paige Smith, could not have happened without outstanding leadership from Walkden and her senior teammates.
“I think it speaks a lot to our senior leadership, that both the starters and non-starters that are freshmen have been able to perform this way,” Smith said after a win on March 27 against Fairfield. “The first person out here for pregame was Alexis Walkden like an hour and a half before the game.”
The bat finally struck the ball successfully for Walkden on April 14 against St. John’s, and once it did, the senior made sure it did not stop. In that game, an agonizing 6-5 loss during which a one-run lead slipped away in the sixth, Walkden went 4-for-4, jumpstarting a three-game stretch heading into her final Big East home game in which she batted .800, going 8-for-10.
The Pirates were down one run in that final conference home game, and the seventh and final inning was coming too fast. With the window for a comeback closing, the Pirates could not muster a hit in the sixth to offer signs of a magical walk-off in the seventh.
Creighton then tacked on one more run in the sixth, and the Pirates needed two more to tie the game. Batting first in the inning was Prukop, next was the freshman Barracato and in the hole was Walkden, as if scripted in a movie.
Things played out differently than in fans’ imaginations, though, as Prukop flew out to second, while Barracato popped out to left field. In her final at-bat on Senior Day, Walkden hit a pitch that cracked off the bat with promise, but ultimately fell inside the right-field fence, with Creighton able to catch it and end the game.
The result was not the perfect home Big East send-off, and the season far from the prolific standard she had set for herself over the last three seasons. But Walkden did more in her four years than can be measured on a stat sheet. She came in with a passion that resembled the playground, and leaves with that same passion, along with a leadership that resembles the educator she strives to become.
“I think that having great players around me all four years is what has really [helped], because, then you don’t have to stress, you don’t have to press, you just have to go out and play the way that you play, kind of carefree,” Walkden said. “And, that’s when everyone plays their best.”
James Justice can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @JamesJusticeIII.