High School Sports

Pearl River Central pitcher stares down threat of blindness

CARRIERE -- Nicole Buras describes her daughter Hailee as unflappable.

Going back to when she first picked up a softball, Hailee Buras had a knack of blocking everything out and just focusing on the task at hand. Nothing could faze her.

Throw the ball away -- I'll work harder.

Give up a run -- so what; I'll get you next time.

Other team starts chanting -- I CAN'T HEAR YOU.

Then life really challenged her.

The teen grew up with a dream of one day playing softball at national powerhouse LSU.

She could envision herself in purple and gold, whipping pitches past opponents and leading the chants in the dugout.

That changed when she was 14.

The diagnosis

She started to notice something was off with her vision. She used to sit in the back of the class in school but one day she noticed she couldn't make out what was on the board. Her distance vision seemed blurred.

After going through multiple pairs of glasses and numerous doctors, Hailee went to a retina specialist who -- rather harshly -- delivered the news that would alter her life.

She was diagnosed with Stargardt's Disease, which is a version of macular degeneration.

"It's like what older people get when they slowly lose their vision," her mom said, "but in younger-person form."

The news -- and, really, how it was presented -- smacked the Buras family like a comebacker upside the head.

"She had 25/25 vision up until she was 14 years old. And then it just declined,'" Nicole Buras recalled.

" (The specialist) basically looked at her and said, 'You're never going to drive. You need to go to the school of the blind now.'

"He threw it at us. I almost passed out. It was very horrible."

The news hit Hailee Buras especially hard at first.

It was like an episode of "Peanuts" when an adult speaks: Wah-wah-wah-wah. The doctor's mouth was moving but nothing made any sense. Her dream was gone. Life as she knew it likely wouldn't be the same.

Shutting down

Nicole Buras said her daughter withdrew almost immediately. "She basically thought that was the end."

"When it happened, that's when I shut down and got low on myself," Hailee Buras added later. "But after that, I was like, 'I'm still going to play. I'm going to find a way."

Her pitching coach had to talk her into coming back to practice and back to the sport that made her happy; made her whole.

At first, her doctor wouldn't sign the consent form needed to allow her to play for her high school, Pearl River Central, and she ended up sitting out her freshman season.

It was difficult seeing her friends suited up on the field while she was restricted to the dugout. But that changed.

The following July, Hailee Buras went back to the doctor. Her eye disease had not progressed. After being run through a battery of tests and reassuring her doctor she would wear a face mask and a heart guard -- which is like a shortened chest protector -- whenever she was on the field, she was cleared to play.

Throwing strikes

Now an 18-year-old senior, she is one of the key pitchers on Pearl River Central's Region 7-5A championship team -- despite being nearly legally blind.

And, if you didn't know she had an eye disease, you wouldn't know by watching her play. Outside of wearing special sunglasses during the day, and then her extra protective gear once she steps into the pitcher's circle, she looks like any other senior.

"We couldn't be here without her, I can tell you that for sure," PRC coach Tony LaBella said before Monday's practice in preparation for their first-round match-up against Pascagoula. "I can't imagine not having her. It's going to be hard when she graduates."

How has she posted a minuscule 0.99 ERA with a 5-1 record? How has she struck out 35 against just eight walks in 35-1/3 innings heading into the best of three series?

"She's kind of a perfectionist," LaBella said of his three-year starter.

She has trouble seeing distances, so instead of having the catcher flash pitch signs, LaBella calls out a sequence of numbers that correspond with her pitches.

"For the other players (catcher Gabbie Keller) might have to paint her fingers for them to see (the calls). She doesn't have to worry about that for me," Hailee Buras said Monday, unleashing one of her hearty laughs.

Staying positive

The real secret to her success isn't an overpowering fastball or a devastating breaking pitch -- it's her personality and humor. Instead of letting the disease eat her up, she has stayed positive and jokes quite a bit -- often at her own expense.

"She's usually one of the happiest kids out here," LaBella said. "She's at peace with it and the other kids are supportive. She's just a great kid."

After throwing a side bullpen session Monday, she hung around with her teammates, cracking jokes and gossiping ahead of the big playoff series. Nothing is guaranteed moving forward, but at least for another day, she is just one of the girls.

"You just have to teach yourself how to stay positive," she said. "You can't let it bog you down because then it just gets the best of you."