Smiling faces, some covered by masks, were abundant the evening of Aug. 6 at Mill Creek’s softball field.

It was a simple preseason scrimmage, yet a meaningful one because it kicked off a high school season initially in doubt because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Being back on the softball field had the Hawks’ players, and those from visiting Brookwood, in joyful moods.

Some of the biggest grins, with good reason, belonged to Mill Creek senior Madison Dobbins, who played her first game in 20 months after back-to-back shoulder surgeries.

“My first at-bat was probably the most nervous I’ve ever been,” said Dobbins, a longtime Georgia Tech commitment. “I knew I wasn’t going to hit a home run or anything. I was just trying to stay relaxed and just enjoy the moment, just be in the moment, because I missed it so much and being able to play with my best friends, especially senior year. I’m trying to leave it all out there on the field.”

Dobbins doubled in the scrimmage, drawing extra loud cheers from the socially distanced crowd and her teammates and coaches in the home dugout. She is easing back into the game in some ways — she has played first base and second base, not her regular third base, while her shoulder strengthens, and she takes caution when she can on the base paths — but she looks like her previous self in many ways, especially at the plate.

She entered this week hitting .373 with seven home runs, 27 RBIs, seven doubles and 19 runs. In her first regular-season games on Aug. 8, a doubleheader with Lassiter, she was 5-for-7 with two RBIs.

“She’s having an awesome year,” Mill Creek softball coach Paul Pierce said. “I tell her to take it easy. Me and her have talked a lot about the trust factor. I’ve got to be able to trust you. If there’s a play at third or a play at the plate, you’re going to have to make sure that tomorrow we can still play. If I can’t trust you, then you’re not going to play. She said, ‘Coach, I know what it’s like to not have softball. I’m going to take care of myself. You can trust me. I’ll be okay.’”

Getting back to okay has been a long, frustrating journey that began when she injured her shoulder during the 2018 high school playoffs. She played through the pain in the postseason, even homering in Columbus against Lassiter in a game that sent the Hawks to the state finals, where they lost to East Coweta.

“In playoffs, I did a fake throw and felt a pop,” Dobbins said. “But I’m so hard-headed I played all throughout state with it. That’s when we were (state) runner-up so I wasn’t going to give up. We had travel tournaments that fall that I was determined to play in. So I probably made it a lot worse than it actually was.”

The injuries, a torn labrum and partial rotator cuff tear, forced a January 2019 surgery that required eight anchors in her shoulder. After six months or so, she began to throw again, but she still felt discomfort.

A second surgery, with two more anchors, was necessary to stabilize the shoulder capsule and to prevent shoulder dislocation. The procedure was done in October 2019, wiping out her junior season of high school softball and resetting her recovery timeline.

“It was honestly very sad, just because I grew up with this sport,” Dobbins said. “I’ve never once questioned whether it was for me or not. It was heartbreaking to watch some of my best friends go out and play and not be able to play with them. Then again, it was eye-opening. It made me very humble. It made me realize that you don’t need to take anything for granted. It can be taken away in the blink of an eye.

“I’m not going to lie. I was sad for a long time. I didn’t want to go out and do anything. I just wanted to be by myself. Softball meant so much to me and I couldn’t do anything. It was just very sad. I was borderline depressed.”

She stayed connected to Mill Creek softball throughout last season, though, and was in the dugout for games to cheer for her teammates.

“I think it was hard for her (to watch games),” Pierce said. “You try to put yourself in her place. You’re not playing. You can’t play. It’s been taken away from you. You’re still bitter. And she was still coming and supporting her teammates, that was hard. I appreciate her doing that. I hope her teammates appreciated that.”

Dobbins tried not to dwell on her injury, which she said helped boost her spirits. She also went to games for her travel team, watched softball videos and fielded ground balls as the healing process advanced.

Her evolution through the nearly two-year span impressed her high school coach.

“I think she matured a lot in those 20 months,” Pierce said. “Something like this hits you in the face and it kind of takes you for a loop. You go through the five stages of anger and what not. I’m just so excited for her. She’s such a terrific young lady and she was a terrific young lady before all of this. To see all the agony and the hurt and to come out on the other side, work hard, I think she’s really seen what life is like without softball. … I’m just so excited to see her, obviously when she has success and we have success, but not only that, to see the smile on her face.

“I see her being able to handle the failure of the game so much better. If she strikes out, it isn’t woe is me, that kind of stuff. She just grabs her glove and goes back to work. That’s the way it’s supposed to be.”

While her career was thrown off track by a second surgery, Dobbins got additional softball support beyond her high school and travel teams. Georgia Tech’s coaches remained true to her scholarship offer.

“The (Tech) coaches are unbelievable,” Dobbins said. “I would not trade it for the world. Most schools and most coaches and other sports even have to worry about whether they’re going to pull scholarships or offers because of an injury. But mine was almost two years long and just for them to say you’re fine, you’re safe with us, just means so much. That honestly was part of the reason why it uplifted me even more because I had something to work for even more, to play at my full potential when I get there so I can make them happy like they made me happy.”

Back in action on the softball field, Dobbins feels happiness frequently these days.

“This is probably one of the best seasons I’ve had in a long time,” she said. “I’m just speechless talking about it because my journey was insane. It’s not something that people my age really ever go through. It was so exciting and joyous to be back and to be able to share my journey and what I’ve gone through. I just want to be able to tell people that you should never take anything for granted because it can be taken away in the blink of an eye.”

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