Softball has been good for Violet Zavodnik, but it’s also been a pain in the head, neck, back and ankle.

The game is paying for her BYU education and is putting Zavodnik’s talents on display in ways her star predecessors could only dream about in the Big 12. But it also has come with a high price tag. For Zavodnik, her Cougar career is best described by a tweaked cliche — no pain, no game.

“It’s hard for me to rank players, but she is one of the most elite players in her total game that I’ve ever had. Arm strength, power, batting average, speed, she has it all. She can compete with anybody and against any pitcher when she is healthy and in the lineup.”

—  BYU coach Gordon Eakin on Violet Zavodnik

“I will run through a wall for my team if it gives us a shot to win,” said Zavodnik, knowing that her parents, Mark and Kimberly in Murrieta, California, may take understandable exception. “Hitting a wall, getting hit by a pitch — I’ll do it. If it helps the team, I’ll do it.”

True to her words, she’s done it — with a testimonial of physical and emotional rehab to back it up.

“I hold my breath every time Violet goes up to bat,” said BYU coach Gordon Eakin. “I know great things can happen when she is up there, but I also know she can be hit again and for her health, that’s just scary.”

Unknown to most who follow Zavodnik, her career batting average of .380, including 49 home runs with only three defensive errors in 176 games, has come while traveling a glory road paved in physical and mental anguish.

Hitting the wall

March 11, 2024: Utah Valley’s Megan Gibbs ripped a shot to center field in the seventh inning of a 6-6 game at Gail Miller Field in Provo. With her speed, Zavodnik is comfortable covering a lot of ground in center field.

“I have a good read on the ball and I’m running when I hear my teammate saying something about the fence,” Zavodnik said. “But I was convinced I was going to get there.”

As Zavodnik reached her arm up to attempt a catch, she slammed into the wall and the ball sailed over it for a home run. The collision left her feeling queasy and with an instant headache, but Zavodnik remained in the game until Maddie Bejarano hit a three-run home run to give the Cougars a 9-7 victory.

“I was so glad she did that because I was up next and didn’t feel well,” said Zavodnik. A postgame examination determined she had suffered her third concussion in 12 months and was sidelined for games against Utah, Texas and Oklahoma State.

Zavodnik was cleared to return to action last weekend against Houston, where she went 5 for 13 with a home run and three runs batted in.

“It was so tough sitting out,” she said. “With a concussion, it’s very emotional. There was a little crying to my parents. I was frustrated that I couldn’t get symptom-free. It just sucked.”

Hit in the back

March 16, 2023: After dealing with left ankle issues throughout the fall of 2022, Zavodnik was bound and determined to play through the pain. But in the first inning at Utah Tech in St. George, she took a fastball to the back and with one pitch, she had a new set of issues to deal with.

“I got hit in the back and it damaged a nerve,” Zavodnik said. “I couldn’t lift my arms up.”

Hit in the neck

March 18, 2023: Two days later, in the first inning against Idaho State in Provo, Zavodnik was hit in the neck by a pitch, just below her batter’s helmet.

“I ran to first base and was fine, but after walking back to the dugout I felt like I was going to puke,” she said. “We tested for a concussion, and I was out for two weeks.”

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The injury was part of a perfect storm. Zavodnik was already struggling with a batting average that dropped from .399 in her sophomore season to .267. This first concussion hit hard.

“I remember the doctors saying I could recover physically from a concussion in two weeks, but mentally and emotionally it takes a lot longer,” she said. “I was down and depressed.”

Hit in the head

May 13, 2023: Leading BYU into a double-header at Saint Mary’s, Zavodnik came to the plate in what would quickly become her last at-bat of the season.

“I got hit in the right temple. I went to first base and was feeling fine, but then became nauseous and started throwing up before the second game,” Zavodnik said.

At that point, she was done. Two concussions, a damaged nerve in her back and ankle problems set the stage for a dramatic comeback as a senior. So, when she hit the wall against Utah Valley last month, Eakin feared the worst.

“They were all gut wrenching to me because, knowing her history, she just can’t sustain those blows,” Eakin said. “When I was young, concussions weren’t followed as much as they are now, but they are serious and can create lifelong problems.”

Five-day protocol

For Zavodnik to get back on the field against Houston and for Tuesday’s home game against Utah Tech (5 p.m. MDT, ESPN+), she had to pass five days of concussion protocol without showing any symptoms.

“The first day, I did 10-15 minutes of cardio. The second day was 10-15 minutes of cardio with weightlifting. The third day, we added a little softball. I could hit or throw,” Zavodnik said. “The fourth day included some hitting and defense. The fifth day is a full practice in a game-like situation, so you are prepared to play.”

If concussion symptoms show up anytime during the five-day period, Zavodnik must restart the process. Once through the evaluation period, she can seek a medical clearance and return to action.

The roller-coaster experience of highs and lows taught Zavodnik a lot about her own body.

“When I get hit in the helmet I get a headache right away. I deal with headaches all the time,” she said. “But I can tell I have a concussion when I feel nausea, my depth perception is off, and I feel slowed down. Once nausea hits, that’s when I shut myself down. I hate puking. When it comes to my head, and I feel nausea, we need to stop and check it out.”

Sister help

Zavodnik is not the only concussion expert in her family. Her older sister Keegan took a ball to the face mask while playing catcher at Rider University in New Jersey during her freshman season. The concussion led to seizures and a departure from the game altogether.

“It took her a year to recover,” said Zavodnik of her sister, who is attending medical school at Duke. “Whenever I get a concussion, she is there to say, ‘You can’t push this. Don’t rush it. This is your brain.’ We take concussions very seriously in our family.”

Love of the game

Among the lessons Zavodnik has learned in her four years at BYU is to appreciate the moment at hand and her love for the game.

“I am never going to be 100% perfect, but I’m on a better path than I was last year,” she said. “I try to be happy and keep a positive vibe, which has helped my mental health. I don’t dwell on the negatives. At the end of the day, I’m here because God gave me a talent.”

Zavodnik is a talent that, in many ways, is the best Eakin has seen over his 22 seasons and 819 wins at BYU.

“It’s hard for me to rank players, but she is one of the most elite players in her total game that I’ve ever had,” Eakin said. “Arm strength, power, batting average, speed, she has it all. She can compete with anybody and against any pitcher when she is healthy and in the lineup. You would think that you could replace one missing piece when she is out, but she is irreplaceable. There is no replacing Violet.”

There aren’t any ho-hum home runs for Zavodnik either. She has loved all 49 of them and can’t wait to belt out the next one.

“I still feel like a kid every time I hit a home run,” she said. “It’s like, “Oh my gosh! I hit a home run! Good job, Violet!”

Big finish

Zavodnik’s last blast at BYU is also the Cougars’ (20-12, 4-8) first year in the Big 12. BYU continues conference play Thursday-Saturday at UCF followed by a three-game series at No. 1 Oklahoma.

“I hope we go out with a bang. I want to go to the NCAA Tournament. I know we can. We have so much talent, drive, and competitiveness,” said Zavodnik, a physical education major with plans for a master’s degree. “A lot of people don’t believe BYU has the talent to be in the Big 12. I want to show them that we do, and I want to make sure my teammates are having fun doing it.”

Despite softball being a pain in her head, neck, back and ankle, the game that Zavodnik has played for the last 17 years is too good to walk away from.

“I play for my sister and my parents. I play for the little girls that look up to us. We need to show them how much fun this sport is,” she said. “As you get older and go through injuries, you learn to cherish these moments. Softball is why I try to live my life to the fullest.”

Dave McCann is a contributor to the Deseret News and is a play-by-play announcer and show host for BYUtv/ESPN+. He co-hosts “Y’s Guys” at ysguys.com and is the author of the children’s book “C is for Cougar,” available at deseretbook.com.