Not many driven athletes suddenly stop competing and join a branch of the military, à la Pat Tillman. But one east coast college student-athlete did just that.
Morgan Bolduk, a former softball pitcher for Eastern Connecticut State University — she just completed her eligibility in May — helped guide ECSU to this year’s NCAA Division III Softball World Series after a deployment to Africa with the Connecticut National Guard.
“It was either I play last spring or I go on deployment,” she said. “And so I had to go through that contemplation of what I wanted to do. But I realized that Africa would be a situation I would never be in again.”
She has been juggling both for a few years.
“The Guard was definitely my priority. I never told my coach that, obviously, because she [Head Coach Diana Pepin] would hate to hear that,” Bolduk said.
The Vernon, Connecticut, native began playing the sport in middle school as a catcher. But that didn’t last long.
“I actually started as a catcher, which is pretty funny because then the next year, I came back, and I was like, ‘Hey, I’m a pitcher, now,’” Bolduk said. “And then I ended up pitching a lot of games. So it was pretty cool.”
She never stopped pitching, and that authoritative confidence set the tone for her future.
Bolduk attended Rockville High School, where she excelled at softball and volleyball. She also joined the Connecticut Bombers, a summer travel ball team coached by Mark Correia.
“I heard about this kid in Connecticut that I had to have,” said Correia, who later joined Eastern’s coaching staff. “I went out and watched her play and tried to recruit her onto my team and met with her and her parents. And fortunately, she decided to join my team.”
After considering three schools for college, Bolduk settled on Eastern Connecticut State, a 25-minute drive from her home. Bolduk’s impact was immediate her freshmen season, registering a 1.92 ERA with 98 strikeouts versus 21 walks. Her prowess continued in 2019, leading the Warriors to a 36-13 record and a third-place finish at the NCAA Division III Softball World Series.
“In ’19, she pitched probably 90% of the innings of the season and led us to third place in the country,” Correia said. “It was like her deal. I mean, she was the horse. We were riding that horse … and it was her team.”
The 2019 postseason left a lasting impression on Bolduk.
“I still get goosebumps to this day thinking of the regionals game that we won that sent us to Tyler, Texas (site of the 2019 world series),” she said. “I still get goosebumps, like I’m getting them right now thinking about it. It’s just taking advantage of those moments.”
‘She does everything 100%’
It wasn’t surprising to Correia that Bolduk shouldered a heavy workload.
“When you watch Morgan play softball, it’s apparent right away that she is a leader,” he said. “She just has a presence on the field. She’s always been the hardest-working kid. She’s the one everybody looks to. She sets the tone. She’s vocal. She does everything 100%.”
Bolduk actually joined the Guard prior to the 2019 season, with her basic training slated for May. That would have kept her from competing in a Warrior postseason.
“I was supposed to leave for basic, and then I would have missed nationals,” Bolduk said. “And people were like, ‘Oh, s#*%, like, you’re a starting pitcher, we kind of need you to go.’
“And so my coach ended up making some calls … and they actually got my date pushed to August.”
But drive, ambition and curiosity brought the National Guard to her attention.
“I always heard like the National Guard commercials on the radio and whatnot,” she said. “And out of nowhere, I heard it one time, and I was like, ‘Maybe I should really consider this because it’d be a really good opportunity.’ It was just like that one radio commercial that I heard, and I was like, ‘Yeah, I kind of want to join.’ And I got really interested in it.”
RELATED: Michigan Army National Guard leverages college athletes in new recruitment campaign
The All-American pitcher embraced her Guard opportunity, deciding to forego her 2021 season and going all-in with her mission.
Bolduk deployed to the Horn of Africa (Camp Simba, Kenya) in March 2021, assigned to the 102nd Infantry (Mountain) and Task Force Iron Gray as a combat medic. Her commanding officer was highly impressed with the softball player turned guardsman.
Capt. James Grindley, of the 14th Civil Support Team, deployed as the medical operations officer. He said in a statement that the Horn of Africa is considered “the most medically austere combatant command and contains dozens of endemic diseases and natural hazards that together form the need to have proficient, resilient medics supporting the tactical environment.”
“Spc. Bolduk is that exemplary medic, demonstrating an expedient work ethic and a vast wealth of treatment competencies,” he said.
Grindley said Bolduk treated more than 200 patients, protecting the health of the force while projecting an upbeat attitude.
“One of the most striking qualities of hers was how positive she remained throughout the tour,” Grindley wrote. “Spc. Bolduk would go from a full day treating injuries and illnesses, many of which were unsightly and horrifying, to then gaze warmly over the jungle canopy, to remark how lucky she was to see it.”
But upon her return in 2022 — just in time for the spring semester — she was ready to spin the ball again. However, Bolduk was a transformed player.
Correia said Bolduk had been a good teammate, constantly cheering on the other players but was kind of in her own space and tended to focus on her role.
“When she came back this year, you could see the maturity, how she grew as an individual,” Correia said. “Where she was much more about everybody. About including everybody. She was less concerned about how she was doing and more concerned about how everybody was doing. She just really matured in the deployment.”
Bolduk graduates from ECSU in December and plans to remain in the Guard while moving on to nursing school. She is considering pediatric or ER nursing. She said she loves children but also loves the trauma side of the profession.
And what about softball? Bolduk will leave ECSU with a minor in coaching.
“If I have kids, I’d love to help them, like coach T-ball, if that’s what they’re interested in. I’d love to coach maybe a little league team, or a high school team, at some point.”Read comments