Rosen's Redemption Leads Israel To Historic Finish
The stage was set, Israel and Germany were to meet in the ninth-place game of the European Softball Federation’s Women’s European Championship.
Ostrava, while located in the Czech Republic, is located extremely close to the Poland border. The game was played on a Saturday, the Sabbath, a day in which most of Israel shuts down because according to Jewish law, it’s the day of rest.
The intensity of the matchup could be felt by all in the stands. The security guards took their posts to the left and to the right. Then, the two teams took the field for the playing of the national anthems.
Israel missed out on a playing for an Olympic berth by one run. A walk-off double against Spain in earlier pool play eliminated the Israelis from the 2020 dream but it set something up that was emotionally and spiritually more than what any of them expected.
For many of the players, especially Darby Rosen, it was surreal.
“During Hatikvah (Israeli National Anthem), you realize how far we have come, how far the world has come and how the power of sport brings people together,” Rosen said. “There was a lot of emotion but it was gratitude and honor. It put things into perspective.”
Entering the tournament, Israel was ranked No. 20 in Europe and had only won one game last year. A 4-2 win against the Germans, secured a No. 9-ranking and the largest improvement of any country in the tournament.
Rosen was one of 13 former or current NCAA Division-I athletes who became Israeli citizens and played in the tournament. Each woman had her own reason for becoming a citizen but Rosen’s was years in the making.
The Texas-native’s career at North Carolina was far from perfect. She cracked the starting lineup for 32 and 34 games her freshman and sophomore years then saw action in 40 starts her junior year.
She fought through a broken hand her freshman year and a torn labrum the summer prior to her sophomore year. Once she reached her junior year, she had nothing left.
“I couldn’t make the throw across the diamond,” Rosen said. “I was miserable. I worked my whole life to get that D-I scholarship and it didn’t end how I imagined. It was disappointing.”
As a senior, she remained on scholarship but didn’t play softball.
While she was rehabbing and fighting for playing time, her parents were fighting a bigger fight. Her mother had been diagnosed with colon cancer before her freshman year and then during her senior year, her father was diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease).
It was Ari Gauss, the director of the Jewish student center, who helped Rosen throughout college and set her up to go on Birthright, a free 10-day trip to Israel for Jewish young adults, in 2015.
“He was like a father to me,” Rosen said about Gauss. “I went to his son’s Little League Baseball games and they came to literally every scrimmage and game.”
Rosen never felt like her career ended the way she wanted it to and then a miracle of an opportunity presented itself. She was named to the Israeli National Team in the winter of 2018 and was given the opportunity to give back to the community that gave so much to her.
Most of the team arrived in Israel in late May, early June and toured the country from the north to the south. They saw historical sites and hosted clinics between practices. They lived in a kibbutz, a farming community, located next to one of the two softball fields in the country.
“The ministry of tourism hosted us one day and we had a ceremony to welcome us as citizens and each of us received a certificate,” Rosen said. “We spent a lot of our time on the kibbutz and it was kind of a blessing in disguise. It forced all of us to be together all the time in really close quarters. We had our little building and our little bathroom and our little kitchen. We made family dinners and would just hang out and play cards at night.”
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It had been three years since Rosen swung a bat. She called it a semi-healed comeback but the numbers don’t lie. Rosen didn't play like someone who tore her shoulder up just a couple years ago. She led the Israeli National Team in the European Championship in almost every statistical category and was named to Softball America’s All-Tournament Team.
“I’m not going to lie, my first two days on the ball field were incredibly frustrating,” said Rosen. “I was questioning myself. What did I get myself into? Would I be able to keep up? I immediately called my travel ball coach, my hitting coach and hired a personal trainer and I went to work.”
Rosen started at shortstop every game of the tournament. She hit in the heart of the lineup and overall finished eighth in slugging (1.048), seventh in home runs (three) and 13th in batting average (.476).
To put in perspective, Rosen recorded seven home runs in three years at UNC and 24 RBIs. She led Israel with eight RBIs in Europe.
“It was the most incredible opportunity of my life,” she said. “It’s what I’ve been doing since I was six and to be able to represent Israel and my heritage. There’s no better experience. It’s what I’ve sacrificed so many things for and it’s brought me life-long friends. We’ve already made plans to visit each other and booked plane tickets.”
Rosen and the rest of her new Israeli family have plans in store for next summer. Instead of the Olympics, they will look to compete in Europe again to qualify for the World Games and maybe some other tournaments along the way. They are all Israelis and want to continue representing their homeland.
“I know it’s a lot of sacrifice and courage to travel to these foreign countries that may not take a liking to us and go out there and play ball,” she said. “Based on history, it shows our country is brave and unbreakable. Knock us down, we will get back up and keep fighting. It’s about pride and honor and we all have accepted the responsibility to represent Israel the best way we can.”