All-American Kandi Burke Can Give Lessons to Comeback Kid

Times Staff Writer

Kandi Burke, Cal Poly Pomona's All-American first baseman, felt like crying when a knee injury forced her to redshirt last year.

The Bronco softball star was hurt just before the 1986 season when during a pickup game a runner diving into first base jammed her helmet into Burke's knee.

"I had hit a home run in the first game and in the second game I had just hit one. So when they went to bat, I could hear the team screaming, 'Take her out. Knock her down,' " Burke said.

What appeared to be a bruise turned out to be torn ligaments and cartilage that resulted in a five-hour operation and a four-inch scar in the middle of her right knee.

So after an incredible sophomore season in 1985 that earned her All-American honors and playing on the U.S. national team in Japan that summer, Burke sat on the bench and kept score for Pomona, ranked fourth nationally.

Watching was not easy. Burke had finished the previous season with a school record of 69 hits, 11 triples, 11 home runs, 37 RBIs and a .319 batting average.

"Anytime an athlete receives an injury, it's devastating, but for Kandi it was especially hard because she's a highly motivated and competitive athlete," said Coach Carol Spanks. "She loves softball, and to not play is tough."

Burke busied herself by pumping iron and attending therapy sessions to get back in shape.

She saved the crying for a happier occasion--her comeback eight months later. The 21-year-old proved wrong those who doubted she'd play again--including her surgeon.

"She's a strong-headed person. She didn't let anything hold her back," said Pomona's assistant trainer, Lisa Davenport. "She set a goal to make it back in the summer, and she did."

Burke worked out a minimum of four hours a day, following a program that Davenport set up. It included swimming, working with weights and walking.

"She rehabilitated quicker than anyone else I've ever had," Davenport said. "That's probably because she was faithful. She came in every day, and I know she'd go home and do more."

The extra work paid off. By last summer Burke was ready to return to softball.

And what a return it was. She had teammates, opponents and fans in tears after slugging a triple with the bases loaded in an Amateur Softball Assn. confrontation between Burke's team, the Majestics, and the Invasions at Las Vegas.

Spanks, who coached the Majestics, recalled the moment: "Kandi just hit that ball harder than I'd ever before seen her hit it. It would have been a grand slam if she could've run, but she just hobbled her way to third."

Three-time All-American Bronco pitcher Rhonda Wheatley, who was on the mound for the Invasions, had mixed feelings about the triple Burke hit off her.

Wheatley was upset about the hit but happy that Burke was the one to do it: "It's hard to pitch to her because she hits everything. But that day was special because no one really knew how she was going to come back. I had tears in my eyes."

Spanks and assistant coach Shirley Topley agree that Burke's first big hit after eight months was the most emotional play they've ever witnessed.

"We even wrote her a letter that said it was the greatest thrill we have seen," Topley said.

That hit marked the beginning of a very determined athlete's comeback.

The 5-foot-9-inch power hitter pounded enough balls out of parks during the rest of her summer league play to earn the ASA home run award and be named to the All-American first team.

After that she was chosen to participate in the Olympic Festival, where her team placed fourth.

"At first I was scared. People wondered, 'Does she still have it,' " Burke said. "But after playing all summer and that first big hit, I thought, 'There's no doubt I still have it.' "

Burke leads the Broncos, who are 13-2, with a .367 batting average. She's had 18 hits in 15 games, 11 RBIs and is the only Pomona player to hit a home run.

"She's a very powerful hitter," Spanks said.

Her tremendous upper body strength was developed during her years as a swimmer. She swam for 10 years and at 14 participated in the Junior Olympics. But the softball and swim seasons conflicted and she was forced to choose one.

"I guess I did it (swimming) for so long that I got tired of it," she said. "I still wonder sometimes, though, how I would have done if I stuck to swimming."

But things are going well enough in softball, thank you. Burke has been invited to try out for the Pan American team this summer. Only 64 college players get that bid.

Wheatley and second baseman Alison Stowell, also an All-American, are the other Broncos who will join Burke this summer.

And while the architecture major continues preparing for her dream--to play in the Olympics--she's just thankful that she's healthy and able to be on a field slugging again.

"It's just so good to be back," she said with a big smile. "I want to play softball for as long as I can."

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