Mackenzie Oliver Mullis’ collegiate softball season came to an end Tuesday, but the next journey of her life is just underway.
After a year hiatus from the sport to give birth to her baby girl, Mullis returned to Brenau for her senior season, leading to a Southern States Athletic Conference championship. But the Brenau Golden Tigers lost 1-0 Tuesday to the University of Sciences and Arts in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics tournament in Alexandria, Louisiana.
“We couldn’t have asked for a better year for her as far as her senior year and being able to capture those moments,” Mullis’ father Jason Oliver said.
Mullis, 22, of Martin, found out she was pregnant after the 2015 conference tournament her sophomore season. She said she had no idea what to do, but she was certain about one thing — she was going to keep her baby.
After an unsuccessful attempt at a redshirt (an athlete who is kept out of varsity competition for a year to extend eligibility) for her junior season, Mullis and Brenau University softball coach Devon Thomas discussed a transfer to Piedmont College.
“He said he’d put my (scholarship) money aside if I wanted to come back ... At the time, I really didn’t think I’d ever get to come back,” Mullis said.
Her pregnancy came with the “hardest class schedule” of Mullis’ collegiate career — microbiology, organic chemistry and calculus simultaneously — as she pursued her biology major.
On Dec. 28, 2015, Mullis gave birth to Palmer. Days later, classes resumed and Mullis returned, too, with baby in tow.
“I went to class with my child,” she said.
Between the diaper bag and her bookbag, the heaviest one would go into the stroller and the other slung around her back. And on one occasion, Mullis had to leave at the beginning of class to feed Palmer.
Her father and his wife, Candace, supported Mullis’ decision. They wanted to see her finish college, but knew she had bigger priorities in play.
If anyone was going to do it, it would be Mackenzie, her father said.
“Part of it is hardheadedness and stubbornness, too,” Jason Oliver said. “We always associate those with negative terms, but in some cases that can work for you, too. She just wasn’t going to take no for an answer, and she was going to finish what she had started.”
During the Brenau 2016 softball season, Mullis approached Thomas about coming back — a few times jokingly until one frank discussion.
“I felt like I didn’t get to finish my dream, because it just got cut off really quick,” she said. “So this kind of gave me closure to come back for one more year and finish strong.”
Plus, her softball scholarship was vital in financial terms for Mullis to transfer back to Brenau, Oliver said.
“If she was going to go back to Brenau, we really needed the softball to get us through that part of it, and we’re very thankful for that,” he said.
She still had jerseys from the team that needed to be returned.
The whole family pitched in to help Mullis with the “absolute chaos” of school and softball schedules, but Oliver said the “true hero” was his wife, Candace.
“She was making sure that she got home in time to keep the baby, where Mackenzie could go where she needed to go,” he said, adding his wife is a first-grade teacher at Carnesville Primary.
It was only for three or four months, the Olivers told themselves.
Mullis said since her softball game is predicated on her agility, she was worried about her yearlong absence from the field.
“I worked really hard before we came back to school and tried to get in the best shape I could, because I knew that our strength coach was going to whip me in shape when I did get there,” she said.
That meant frequent heavy lifting to regain the muscle, as she detests long-distance running.
Oliver knew his daughter was capable of getting back into shape, especially since his children grew up on a ballfield. As the Franklin County High School softball coach, Oliver said his kids “migrated their way to the field, because that’s where I was always at.”
And her father’s team helped her ramp up for the next season.
“It’s like she never stepped off the field — like riding a bicycle,” Oliver said.
In her first game back this season, Mullis got on base, sprinted and regained her confidence. After her season as the team’s leadoff hitter, she is No. 9 in Division I for stolen bases at 40, according to NAIA statistics.
“I think I am more confident in what I can do now, because I’ve had to come back from the bottom,” she said.
The act of balancing softball and a newborn remained an impressive feat to Mullis’ teammates..
The Golden Tigers captured the SSAC championship in late April before heading to the tournament last week in Louisiana.
When the umpire signaled the last out, Mullis’ father gave his daughter some wise words about the game.
“The game doesn’t owe you anything,” he said. “The game’s already given you so many memories and so many good times and family times. You should just be grateful.”
And his granddaughter is part of those memories.
“Having Palmer as a part of our family is certainly a special moment and special times for us, and it’s taught us that a lot of things that are really good in life are the unscripted moments in our life,” Oliver said.
Mullis graduated earlier this month with a degree in health sciences and a minor in education, saying she plans to teach health so she can coach. However, her father is looking to the younger generation.
It may be too early to call at almost 17 months, but Oliver said he thinks he might have a softball-playing granddaughter in the making.
“She’s already spent the first year of her life at the ballfields, so I’ll imagine there will be many more,” he said.