Rising to the challenge

Senior pitcher Karla Claudio is currently tied for the nation’s lead in saves, with six on the season. 

As her dad walked off the field following a practice with the Puerto Rican National Softball Team for which he volunteered, Karla Claudio ran up to him and said, “‘Dad, I really want to wear one of those uniforms, I really want to be here and I know I can do it.”

Little did she know how much she would exceed her own expectations.

In 2011, that dream came to fruition when she was selected to play in the Pan American Games on the team she had idolized as a young girl.

“It was huge, it was amazing,” she said. “The Pan Am Games is like basically the Olympics, like a mini edition.”

Claudio now resides in Tampa — 1,200 miles from home — and is becoming one of the most dominant pitchers in USF’s bullpen. Now in her senior year, she is tied for the nation’s lead with six saves and leads the AAC with 25 appearances. But four years ago she made one of the hardest decisions of her life — to leave her family and friends to pursue her dream.

“They say that the sky is the limit, but when I was back home I just kept thinking the sky is not the limit,” Claudio said. “I want to do more than just staying home and playing softball.”

The competition in her home country was not up to her standards. She said she knew she could stay home and be one of the most dominant players in the country, but wanted to be even better than that.

“The level of college ball back home is not very good and I could’ve stayed home with my family and my friends, but I just wanted to do more; I wanted to experience more,” Claudio said. “If I would’ve stayed home, my level of play would have never gone up, I would’ve stayed the same. Playing over here has made me so much better than I was four years ago.”

Claudio didn’t start out in softball, but she was surrounded by the game early in life, which made the transition inevitable.

“My dad was a baseball player his whole life,” she said. “I started playing volleyball and I really liked it. I was really tall and really good, but I was at the ballpark my whole life since I was little. I went to all my dad’s games and my mom even used to bathe me at the baseball field because we were there all day long. I just fell in love with the ballpark.”

Adjusting to a new sport was one challenge, but it was nothing compared to overcoming the language barrier once moving to the U.S.

“It was really hard,” said the San Lorenzo native. “The first month or two I was here, all I thought was I want to go back home, I can’t do it, I can’t communicate, I don’t know how to get around. If I need something from the financial aid office, I don’t know how I’m going to talk to them. I didn’t even know how to say, ‘Hey, can you help me?’”

Claudio found a new home at Santa Fe College in Gainesville prior to USF. It was there that she began transforming her life and adjusting to the new country.

“We wanted her before she even went to Santa Fe, but the aspect of going there and getting the English language down and feeling comfortable and acclimated to the United States, and seeing how she would handle being away from home was a big deal,” USF coach Ken Eriksen said. “The staff at Santa Fe was always in contact with us about her progress.”

Claudio received help from her Spanish-speaking coach, Chris Ahern, who wouldn’t let her speak Spanish in practice or to teammates. This pushed her to not only be good at softball, but proficient in a new language.

“People don’t understand that she just learned the English language and mastered it in what, three years?” Eriksen said. “To understand the nuances and slangs and dugout chatter is hard and she gets it. She’s a pretty bright kid.”

Eriksen had seen her play before on her home turf during the 2011 Pan American Games against none other than Team USA, of which he was the head coach at the time.

When asked about his first impression of Claudio, he immediately replied, “She was an athlete.”

“She’s probably one of our better catchers that’s never going to catch for us. She’s probably one of the better shortstops that’s never going to play shortstop for us,” Eriksen said. “She’s an athlete and a half with great instincts that you’d love to have in your program.”

Claudio took notice of her future coach as well and cited the program’s Big East title win and College World Series run as key elements in her decision to make the short trip down to Tampa.

When pitching, her dad always told her to be tough and stay positive. Claudio now channels that positivity into her play, an intangible element that USF junior Monica Santos — a former teammate on the Puerto Rican National Team – can’t play without.

“One thing Karla always shows on the field is that she plays with a lot of passion and I don’t think you could ever take that away from her,” Santos said. “It’s contagious when you have someone that is so passionate about what they do. You look at her when she gets a strikeout and she’s punching her glove and bringing that energy. To have that presence on the mound is very beneficial.”

As dominant as she’s been this year, Claudio got a chance to sit behind Sara Nevins, one of the best pitchers USF has ever seen, and who became her “big” once she joined the squad in 2013.

“She’s strong,” Nevins said. “Whether it’s fielding or pitching or hitting or even when she’s not playing, she’ll be cheering you on and makes little handshakes with everyone on the team and it makes playing with her a lot of fun.”

Claudio sat behind Nevins her first year and made only 14 appearances compared to Nevins’ 44. She knew once Nevins was gone, she’d have to step up and fill the void and she was ready.

“We worked hard in the fall knowing the questions we’d face, but we knew how good we were from day one,” Claudio said. “Even Sara (Nevins) told us that even though she wasn’t here, she knew how talented we were and that we wouldn’t need her to be successful.”

No matter how much success she gains, it doesn’t fill the void left by her family and friends who she has only seen once this year.

“I think about it every day,” Claudio said. “When I come out of the bullpen and listen to (my walk-up song), It feels like I’m home. Sometimes I get really homesick, but I’ve fought through it and I’ve been here for four years now and they are so proud of me and that’s all I care about.”