The anterior cruciate ligament.
It is one of the four major ligaments of the human knee. An injury creates a major hurdle for any athlete to overcome.
For Karen (Smith) Malloy, suffering that injury just months before arriving at Indian Hills in 1997 put her hopes of continuing a softball career on the intercollegiate level in serious jeopardy. In fact, if it wasn’t for the coach that will be joining her in the IHCC athletic hall-of-fame this weekend, Malloy may never have worked her back onto the diamond.
“I’m not sure if I would have even played college softball, but I give Coach (Jeff) Kelley a lot of credit for being persistent in keeping me interested in being a part of the program,” Malloy said. “He signed me before I suffered my ACL injury and stuck with me.
“I can’t say enough positive things about Coach Kelley. I have no doubt that I would never have been the player I became without him.”
Malloy, then just Karen Smith, went on to etch her name along with some of the best players in junior college softball as a part of the 1998 and 1999 national tournament Warrior squads. On the way to helping Indian Hills win 129 of 141 spring season games, Karen Smith finished in the top five of seven offensive categories all-time in Warrior program history.
This Saturday, Malloy will become just the second Indian Hills softball player inducted into the IHCC athletic hall-of-fame. Perhaps the Warriors’ best lead-off hitter will join the program’s top pitcher in Tara McClure, who was Malloy’s teammate for those two highly successful years.
“I really enjoyed playing with Tara,” Malloy said. “I have a lot of respect for her.”
The background for Malloy is similar to that of the former Cardinal High School standout. Malloy herself came from a small town in Iowa after starring at West Marshall.
After signing with Kelley and Indian Hills, Malloy admits she didn’t know what the next two years would have in store for her.
“I had no idea what I was agreeing or signing up for,” Malloy said. “There again, I give a lot of credit to Coach Kelley. There were a lot of things he taught me that I didn’t learn in high school.”
Before she could learn anything on the diamond, Malloy had to get her surgically reconstructed knee back to health. Part of what drove Malloy to work hard in her rehab was a modesty in where she would eventually fit on a team with so much talent that, for Malloy, it could be a little intimidating.
“There were a lot of girls that had come from bigger schools and a lot of girls that played AAU softball. My family grew up in place where we didn’t know anything about that,” Malloy said. “I had no idea that I would be as successful as I ended up being. I felt like everyone else was a lot better than me.
“I never felt like I was that great of a player. I didn’t think there was any way I would start in the spring, so I spent a lot of extra time building up my strength just so I could contribute however I could.”
Kelley found a way for Malloy to contribute immediately, though it would mean a change from her high school playing days. With so many powerful hitters on the 1998 squad, Kelley asked Malloy if she would work on becoming the squad’s lead-off batter.
“That was the biggest change to me,” Malloy said. “I always hit in the third spot in high school, so it became a different situation for me when I stepped up as the first person at the plate each game.”
Malloy also took over as a starting outfielder and soon thrived both at the plate and on the field. Malloy became a first-team All-Region and first-team All-American for IHCC and finished her Warrior career among the all-time leaders in the program in at-bats, triples, doubles, runs and total bases while placing in the top five for single-season triples and doubles.
Those kind of numbers are exactly what make a great lead-off hitter and are generated by excellent speed and base running. What makes those accomplishments even more incredible for Malloy is that they came in spite of the mental hurdle that comes with an ACL tear.
“The biggest fear for me was worrying about reinjuring it. That was my biggest challenge,” Malloy said. “It was also a little bit more challenge sliding, but you learn to work past those obstacles. It took me a good, successful year before that cautiousness went completely away. It wasn’t completely gone, but it wasn’t something that overwhelmed me.”
Once again, however, Malloy worked hard to make sure she could keep up with the talent on the Warriors.
“I just worked hard every day at it. I just wanted to do the very best I could,” Malloy said.
Malloy went on to play at Simpson College, helping lead the Storm to a national tournament berth her junior season. Malloy also earned first-team All-Conference, All-Region and All-American the in her two years at Simpson.
“My only regret was I wish Indian Hills was a four-year school,” Malloy said. “I wasn’t a natural, but if I hadn’t been at Indian Hills there’s no way I would have had any success at Simpson.”
That success at Simpson allowed Malloy to begin a hall-of-fame year. The player who thought she might be good enough to get on the field at IHCC entered Simpson’s Athletic Hall-of-Fame just months before being named an Indian Hills hall-of-famer.
“When you go through it once, it’s overwhelming,” Malloy said of entering the Hall-of-Fames. “After doing it twice, I feel like I should play the Lottery. I don’t gamble, though.”
Malloy, who lives in Des Moines and works at Mercy Medical Center in human resources, is planning on being joined for her IHCC Hall-of-Fame induction by plenty of family members. That includes her husband, her two kids, her parents, her brother — and her sister Cindy Smith, who played two successful years of Warrior softball following in her older sister’s footsteps.
“I was so incredibly proud of her,” Karen said of Cindy. “She kind of played this ultimate utility role where you are in and out of the lineup. I think the world of Coach Kelley. He built me into the player I was and definitely the player Cindy became.
“That would be awesome if we both became IHCC hall-of-famers someday.”