Homer in game of life
Tribulations, chance lead to dream fulfilled
As 17-year-old Taelyn Pagel kicked back in an easy chair, cradling a dog while talking about achieving her dream of playing college softball, she looked and sounded blissfully, peacefully at home.
Such peace was elusive during her junior and senior years at Marion High School until a court-sanctioned move in April to the ranch of new legal guardians Lori and Chuck McLinden of Marion brought respite from an unexpectedly tumultuous home life with her father and a chance meeting that would forever change her life.
“I wouldn’t be playing college softball if my dad wasn’t the way my dad is,” Taelyn said. “I wouldn’t be playing college softball if I wouldn’t have been put in this family. It’s all part of God’s plan; that’s all it is.”
Road to Marion
Raised with an older brother and then younger sister by her single mother, Sheri, Taelyn was no stranger to moves.
She started school in Deshler, Nebraska, moved to Belleville, Kansas, back to Deshler, then to Bellvue, Nebraska, and going into her eighth grade year to North Dakota.
For Taelyn and Sheri, through it all was softball.
“I had a ball in my hand when I was born,” she joked. “When I was 4, my mom started coaching my T-ball team.”
Sheri was coach or assistant coach for Taelyn’s teams until Taelyn caught on with a 14-and-under travel team.
“It was nice not having my mom at practice, but I missed having her there,” Taelyn said. “I liked it better because she could actually just be a mom and not a coach.”
However, as she entered high school, Taelyn began having doubts about her softball skills.
“I wanted to play at Oklahoma; that had been my dream since 4 years old,” she said. “I started playing my freshman year and I was like, ‘I’m not good enough to go to any college to play softball,’ and I gave up on that dream.”
Life got tougher for Taelyn when Sheri got married the summer after her sophomore year. She also had to transfer to a rival high school as a junior.
“It was getting kind of rough with the living situation with her new husband,” Taelyn said. “I wasn’t used to that because she’d been a single mom for 16 years.”
Taelyn decided she wanted to to move to Marion to live with her father, Brian Pavlicek.
“I’d never lived with my dad,” she said. “I’d only stayed with him six or seven times. I’d seen him a lot, but I wasn’t super close with him. Moving away from my mom was really hard.”
She cried the entire 10½-hours it took in flights and layovers to get to Wichita.
Taelyn recalled what she had said to her mother about why she wanted to move.
“I told her I felt like I would have better opportunities down here and I felt like life would be easier,” she said. “But then, life wasn’t easier.”
Changing schools wasn’t hard for naturally outgoing Taelyn. She joined the basketball team mid-season, then went out for softball. This past fall she added volleyball to the mix.
“I made a lot of friends,” she said.
However, she discovered home life with her father and his wife, Nichel, wasn’t at all like the few visits she’d had.
While there was a brief period of respite last summer, Taelyn said, there was an ever-escalating series of disagreements and conflicts that weighed heavily on her.
While an aunt, Heidi Stringer, was a source of support, sports became a way to get away. Volleyball coach Brea Campbell was the first to take her under her wing.
“When dad and I had issues during volleyball season, Brea was there,” Taelyn said. “I would start crying at practice just because I would think about it. I never thought about sports as an escape, but she said, ‘When you’re on the court, don’t even think about them; this is your escape from everything.”
But the escapes were only as long as practices and games, and conditions at home continued to deteriorate, Taelyn said. The problems reached their peak over prom weekend in April, and the following Monday, April 10, Taelyn couldn’t take any more.
“I called (Marion police chief) Tyler Mermis and said ‘Look, you need to come to the school, I need to talk to you.’”
Mermis, assistant chief Clinton Jeffrey, and Taelyn’s aunt met her in a back room in the high school library while librarian Lori McLinden was preparing for a seventh-hour class.
After a reportedly heated phone conversation with Pavlicek, Mermis decided Taelyn should not go home. She needed a place to stay, and McLinden volunteered.
“I don’t know where that came from,” McLinden said. “It’s not like I had been sitting at my desk thinking about it. I know on that day it was very clear to me that I was supposed to say, ‘We’ll take her. I had her for a student, so it wasn’t like I didn’t know her.”
That evening Lori; husband, Chuck; 21-year old daughter Lauren; and son Jarret, an MHS junior, sat down with Taelyn for dinner and talked about her immediate future. Chuck immediately supported Lori’s decision.
“That very first night, Chuck leaned over to Taelyn and said, ‘Honestly, I don’t even know you very well, but you mean a lot to her, and that means you mean a lot to me,’” Lori said.
Catching the dream
While Taelyn’s mother initially wanted her to go back to North Dakota, Taelyn had other plans.
“I had 25 days of school left in my senior year,” she said. “I said, ‘Mom, I’m not coming home.’”
After a couple of court appearances, Taelyn’s stay with the McLindens as her legal guardians was confirmed through her 18th birthday in July.
She missed just one softball practice, and Taelyn credited coach Jennifer Felvus and Campbell, her assistant, with helping her weather the storm.
“Coach told me, ‘Whatever happened at home, that doesn’t affect the kind of player you are,’” Taelyn said. “Jen and Brea, they were the kind of coaches you could go to if you had a problem and they’d be there for you.”
After a late-season doubleheader at Inman, Taelyn decided to ride home with the McLindens instead of taking the team bus. On the way back they stopped at Wal-Mart in McPherson.
Still wearing her uniform, she was startled when a man she didn’t know started talking to her.
“I walked past this guy, and he asked me, ‘Do you play softball?’” she said. “He never introduced himself; he just started talking. He pulled out his wallet, gave me his card, and said, ‘Give me a call.’”
The man was Danny Baker, assistant softball coach at Central Christian College, and neither of them realized at the time that they had met a year earlier.
Baker had learned about Taelyn when he was working on a job with her father and uncle. He had offered her a spot on a summer traveling softball team, which she had to decline.
Taelyn recalled the connection once she got back in the truck to go home. A series of text messages ensued, and Baker came to Marion to watch Taelyn play.
He sat with the McLindens during the first game.
“He wanted to know her story,” Lori said. “He was under the impression her dad was a great guy and everything was golden.”
Between games, Baker and Taelyn talked.
“It was really cool what he said,” Taelyn said. “He said, ‘You determine the ending of your own story, and you can make your story great.’”
As an assistant, Baker couldn’t offer her a scholarship, but he helped arrange a workout with head coach Mark Ritchhart, who liked what he saw.
“He sat me down and we started talking and he said, ‘I’d like to offer you a scholarship,’” Taelyn said. “I took a tour of Central’s campus and I fell in love with it. It was so close-knit, like family-based, and that’s what I’m about. I’m a family kind of person.”
And with that, the dream that had died as a freshman was resurrected. Taelyn signed to play for Central Christian. She plans to take pre-medical coursework with a goal of one day becoming an anesthesiologist.
Lori and Taelyn made a spontaneous decision in June to drive to Oklahoma City for the finale of the NCAA college softball championship series. After two friends could not go, they asked Baker’s daughter, Randie, to go with them.
“I was the driver and the holder of the money,” Lori said. “These two, you would never guess they had never met, and by the end of the trip they said, ‘Let’s be roommates.’”
They cemented that decision when they got back from Oklahoma City, filling out a request on Central Christian’s website that evening.
Taelyn has settled into life on the ranch, chipping in on chores, adopting a couple of calves, learning to adjust to Lori’s cooking, and having Jarret as a surrogate brother.
She talks to her mother every day, and she hopes things eventually will improve in her relationship with her father.
“We actually started talking again a little bit,” Taelyn said. “I don’t want him to think he’s always been there for me. I don’t want him to think he’s an all-star dad.”
Meanwhile, Lori and Chuck have embraced Taelyn as if she were one of their own.
“We’ve already been trying to order softball mom and dad shirts through Central,” Lori said. “I haven’t been a softball mom since Lauren was a little girl. But now I have earrings and a necklace that say softball mom, so I’m official now.”