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A second chance


Alex Flores, Liberty's all-conference catcher, returns for her senior campaign after missing last season with a stress fracture in her foot

A year ago, Alex Flores was wearing a protective boot on her right foot. And she was not playing softball.

The standout Liberty catcher had been felled by a stress fracture that was diagnosed just as she was switching gears from basketball season to softball. Though she missed much of her junior year — finally getting back on the field late in the regular season and helping the Falcons reach the Class 5A state quarterfinals for the third consecutive year — Flores made the most of her time on the sidelines, studying the game and acting as a de facto coach for her team.by: HILLSBORO TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - Liberty senior Alex Flores missed all of last season with a stress fracture in her foot, but she's back this year to lead the Falcons as they chase another state playoff berth.

But now she is back for her senior season, healthy and with a scholarship to play softball at Portland State already in hand.

“It was the biggest injury I’ve ever had,” Flores recalled last week about the stress fracture. “Mentally, it was a really big year for me. I actually learned so much from sitting out, and I’m actually thankful that I did have that time, because, as a catcher, you need to be a leader, and I think that was more of a coaching perspective.”

Sometime during her junior basketball season, Flores’ right foot started bothering her. Eventually, the pain vanished, and Flores, now 17, attributed it to a possible bone bruise. But late in the season the pain returned, and Flores decided to tough it out while the Falcons were concluding a 12-14 campaign that ended with a first-round playoff loss to Hermiston in early March.

“It felt like there was a little needle in there, and it was just like a pinching feeling,” Flores said. “And it just didn’t feel good at all every time I walked. I was definitely favoring my other foot so that I wouldn’t put pressure on it.”

So Flores had the foot examined, and X-rays determined that she had incurred a stress fracture to the second metatarsal bone in her right foot. She was told that she would be out for essentially all of the upcoming softball season.

“Knowing Alex — she’s a young lady that loves to play the game, and it hurt,” Liberty coach Nolan Meeuwsen, who has been Flores’ coach for her entire high school career, said about her time off the softball field. “It cut deep into that young lady, like it did me, too.”

How do you use a player of Flores’ caliber — she was the First Team All-Northwest Oregon Conference catcher in 2011 — when she is injured, a player that Meeuwsen described as having a “very strong arm, great bat. She’s a smart ballplayer. She has a high-level softball IQ.”

So the Falcons came up with Plan B.

While Flores was healing from her injury — her recovery primarily consisted of spending lots of time in that protective boot and allowing her foot to heal — Meeuwsen decided he could still put her to work.

“She had to get into a different role. She didn’t want to be away from the game,” Meeuwsen explained. “I said, ‘You’re going to be a coach.’ So she was on the bucket, and she would actually call pitches for the game from the bucket as a player. And she was … with us the whole way.”

In addition to calling pitches during games, Flores also gave signs to Liberty’s pitchers and catchers, worked with her teammates on fundamentals, and imparted her experience to then-freshman Paige Smotherman, whom Meeuwsen decided to move from third base to catcher to fill in for Flores.

Smotherman rose to the challenge, earning First Team All-NWOC and honorable mention all-state honors at the position.

“But it’s a whole new mentality you take onto the field, and you carry your team … tell them that even though you’re in this boot that you can still help them, because softball is more than just physical,” Flores explained about her role on the sidelines. “It’s definitely a lot of mental game. There was some struggle there, and I was definitely there, right there with them.”

Flores did return for the end of the Falcons’ regular season and for their playoff run, even hitting a home run in one of her first games back. Rather than having Flores putting stress back on that foot, Meeuwsen had her play third base, where she had been a starter as a freshman.

And she slowly started working back into catching while playing with her ASA softball team, the Oregon Thunder Gold, over the following summer.

Now, Flores is a little more than a year removed from her injury diagnosis. She deliberated about whether to play basketball this year, unsure if she wanted to risk injuring her foot again. After seeking advice from her parents and a number of her coaches, including Meeuwsen, she decided to turn out.

“You only get one chance at it, so I’m glad she played her senior year of basketball,” Meeuwsen said.

Flores had the foot taped for basketball games and worked with Liberty coach Melanie Wagoner during the season to make sure she remained healthy.

Again, the Falcons fell to Hermiston in the first round of the playoffs. And Flores played a role in it all, earning an All-NWOC honorable mention nod for a season in which she almost decided not to play.

And before Flores heads to the Park Blocks of Portland and the world of college softball — she has already signed her letter of intent with the Vikings — she has one final season of high school ball to play. After dropping a 10-2 decision to Glencoe in its season opener on March 12, Liberty rattled off three consecutive wins against Class 6A opponents to open up the non-conference slate.

Flores is back in her spot at catcher — and Smotherman is back at third base — and the senior captain has provided some early hitting prowess to the lineup, going 4-for-4 at the plate against Hillsboro.

“I’m really excited. We have a great group,” Flores said about her team, which includes eight seniors this year. “To be honest … I just feel like I’m in a family area with them. There’s no worries. We can be honest with each other. There’s nothing to worry about. We don’t have problems.”

Meeuwsen is excited, of course, to have Flores back. He hopes she picks up a number of postseason awards, he said, but not only that.

Said Meeuwsen: “My hope is that when she leaves my program — that certainly she’ll leave a mark on the program that’s going to be long-lasting — but hopefully we’ve left a mark on Alex too, in that she’s ready for the college experience and playing college softball.”