Column: Looking forward and back

The text message came over around 5:30 p.m. Thursday. The message itself was pretty clear.

“Hi, I am in a team meeting at our hotel in Alabama, ill call when its over.”

The text was from Kim Traxler, former Interlachen High School and St. Johns River Community College softball standout and current center fielder for Palm Beach Atlantic’s softball team.

The meeting Traxler was in surrounded head coach Kimmy Bloemers. Bloemers was back in Palm Beach County along with family members tending to her father, Baseball Hall of Fame catcher and Palm Beach Atlantic baseball coach Gary Carter, who lost his yearlong battle with brain cancer earlier Thursday.

“We found out 20 minutes after he had passed,” Traxler said Thursday night from Huntsville, Ala. Traxler and her teammates were in an invitational at Alabama-Huntsville this weekend. “Her original plan was she was going to get up here a day later after she was spending her time with her dad. Now we’re all dealing with (the death) and trying to find ways we can encourage our coach, especially with all the stuff she’s gone through. We’re all so amazed with how well she’s handled it.

“We’re making sure we stay focused and play for coach Carter. He supported us and everything we did with the program. He was a huge fan, trying to come to as many games as he could.”

For Traxler, this is the end of a 15-year journey this winter and spring. As a senior and second-year player with the Sailfish, the 21-year-old is playing her final season of softball, while finishing up her bachelor’s degree work in psychology.

“Fifteen years went by so quickly,” said Traxler, laughing like the happy-go-lucky, blue-eyed blonde would often do throughout the 30-minute conversation. “I can still remember playing T-ball as a 6-year-old. I remember my first time hitting the ball and the helmet was too big that it was over my eyes.”

Laughing again when remembering that moment, she said, “I started taking off and slipped and fell. But I got back up.”

Traxler earned her stripes as a four-year varsity player with the Rams, playing third base on back-to-back District 6-3A championship teams in 2007 and ’08, her junior and senior years. Traxler, as a matter of fact, is one of the greatest female athletes Putnam County has ever seen, earning All-County honors in softball, volleyball and girls soccer, earning Daily News Player of the Year honors as a junior in girls soccer.

It was softball, though, that Traxler earned a scholarship to play for coach Becky Bennett at SJRCC in 2008. After two good years there, the first year stymied by a broken hand, it was Bennett’s former Florida State University teammate, Bloemers, who took notice, inking Traxler to a scholarship to continue her career.

“I’ve really enjoyed everything about the school,” Traxler said. “I’ve enjoyed the softball program, my teammates, the professors, especially being at a private school. You get more attention from the professors. There really haven’t been any bad experiences. When I came here and met everyone, they were very, very kind.”

And what else, Kim?

“I was also interested in the beach. It’s only a mile from where our dorm is, which is located right on the Intracoastal.”

Traxler hit .247 a year ago, starting 33 of the 38 games she played in. She had 16 runs scored, had a home run, drove in six runs and was 9-for-9 in stolen-base attempts. In center, she made just two errors in 33 attempts. This year, she is hitting .227 with six runs scored, three RBI and has stolen a base in her only attempt in 10 games, while fighting through a sprained ankle, which she said is not hindering her from playing games.

The numbers seem to make anyone think she has struggled. But Traxler disagrees.

“The competition is way better here,” she said. “I knew that immediately when I got here. It’s not that different from JUCO. We played good teams in JUCO ball, but here, we’re seeing a lot of good Division I and II teams.”

Traxler, whose team was 8-5 going into the weekend tournament, said she is considering graduate school after she gets her diploma. If not, she wants to do counseling work and would like to do it down in South Florida, which she has adapted as her new home. Traxler is also minoring in exercise science.

“In three to five years, I would like to be having a counseling job, while living on the beach somewhere,” she said. “There’s just so many more opportunities here and it’s fast-paced.”

Traxler has gotten to know Bloemers and her dad in the nearly two years at the college. And though she can never pinpoint any one conversation she had with the late Hall of Fame catcher, she will always remember him as an energetic and positive-minded individual.

“He had such a love for the game and for people,” said Traxler, who will be up with her team in St. Augustine on March 7 when the Sailfish play a twinbill with Flagler College. “He took advantage of every opportunity he had to see us play and be involved in charity work. I know they will have a memorial at the school, though I don’t know when it’s going to be.

“He was such a great person. I’ll always remember just seeing him with an encouraging attitude and smile, his best character traits.”

Like the text message, that, too, was very clear.

Mark Blumenthal is a writer for the Palatka Daily News.

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