VALPARAISO | When Joylyn Ichiyama walked off the field following Valparaiso’s season-ending loss to Kentucky in the NCAA tournament last season, the senior believed she was walking away from the softball for the final time.
Having graduated after four years at Valparaiso, Ichiyama was ready to raise her son Jayden and get a job in the real world. Ichiyama had the option to return to the Crusaders after she sat out her junior season when she was pregnant with Jayden.
Valparaiso coach Jordan Stevens wasn’t holding his breath about a possible return from Ichiyama.
“I told her that we had a spot for her, but it was more something we joked about,” Stevens said. “I got a call from her with about two weeks left before school started. I was happy to see her name come up on my phone because we hadn’t talked in a while, then she asked if the spot was still there. I was ecstatic.”
Ichiyama was deliberate in making her decision over the summer, talking with her family and former teammates before calling Stevens. Once she decided to return to school, it was time to alert her teammates that she would be back for another season.
“There are kids that never get the chance to play Division I softball and I wanted to make the most of the opportunity I had for me and for Jayden,” Ichiyama said. “I knew I could come back and bring leadership to the team. Yes, I wanted to play, but I wanted to help out the younger kids and be there for them.”
The Crusaders needed Ichiyama’s leadership more than ever this season. Gone was the senior class that led Valparaiso to the first NCAA tournament in program history and in its place, a freshman class that was as green as the outfield grass. The idea that this was a rebuilding year for Valparaiso was all the motivation Ichiyama needed to repeat as a member of the All-Horizon League First team and help lead the Crusaders back to the NCAA tournament.
Valparaiso will take on Michigan in the first round of the tournament on Friday night in Ann Arbor. California and Central Michigan will meet in the other game in the first round of the double elimination regional.
“I came back to face the critics and they drove me even more,” Ichiyama said. “It’s bittersweet to be doing this without my senior teammates from last season, but I’m leaving this program in great hands. It’s good to be able to go back (to the NCAA tournament) and prove that we belong there. We’re looking for a better showing this season.”