When Danielle Gabriel was younger, she and her father, Dick, spent a lot of time dealing in all things softball.
“He was really big on baseball, and so he introduced me to the sport and taught me so much of what I know,” said Gabriel, Toms River South’s pitcher for the past four seasons. “It was our big thing together.”
Starting off around the age of 12, Gabriel played for several years before going to Toms River South. Except she had never imagined her dad not getting the opportunity to see her pitch a single game in high school.
Dick Gabriel died of cancer Feb. 19, 2010, several weeks before Danielle entered her freshman season for the Indians.
“He was diagnosed my seventh-grade year,” she said. “He had melanoma from being out in the sun, and it started in his eye. The cancer was removed and everything went fine. He was going back for regular checkups and everything seemed fine, but it came back about eight months later and it was everywhere.
“It spread to his brain, his lungs, his stomach, all over. They did chemotherapy. It didn’t take the cancer away, but it wasn’t growing as much for awhile. But then it caught fire and there was nothing that could be done.”
Only a couple months later she was toeing the rubber as the team’s starting hurler. But it wasn’t an easy season.
“It was really difficult,” she said. “First of all, its your dad. He’s someone I look up to, someone I’d been with my whole life. You can’t really describe it unless you’ve been through it. It’s hard at times. It hits me in different ways, especially during softball season because that was our big bonding thing.”
South head coach Tom Malek remembered the situation well.
“She came into a tough situation emotionally, because she and her dad had a great relationship,” he said. “She started her freshman year, and at times she struggled. She was a little bit wild but we stuck with her, and she was always willing to work hard. She never let her father’s passing affect her on the field. And even when things got bad, she’s always kept her composure.”
One particular instance was especially tough for Gabriel.
“I remember my freshman year, I looked up and saw a man in sunglasses and he looked a lot like my dad,” she said. “That was the hardest moment for me, because it was still fresh. I thought it was him for a couple of seconds, and then it was a blow that it wasn’t and it would never be.”
But instead of using the emotional struggle as an excuse, Gabriel used the experience of losing her dad as motivation and continued to plug away and improve.
“He wouldn’t have wanted me to sit around and cry about it,” she said. “I’ve tried to use it to push myself and get better, because that’s what he would have wanted. I’ve dedicated my career to him.”
Gabriel improved markedly during her sophomore and junior seasons, and this season entered the year as one of the premier pitchers in the Shore Conference.
Not only was she considered by many opposing coaches as a pitcher who would keep the Indians in games with a solid arsenal of effective pitches, she also had established herself as one of South’s best ever, earning a spot on the Asbury Park Press All-Shore first team following a stellar junior season.
And just last week, she eclipsed the career strikeout mark once held by Jodi Solana – a record that had been intact since 1991, before Gabriel was born.
“It was a point in my life where I can say I accomplished something,” she said. “I set a goal and met it. It’s a great personal thing, because you want to set goals in life and when you accomplish them you realize all the hard work you put into it was worth it.”
Still, despite the high stature and being South’s big gun on the softball field, Malek is most impressed by Gabriel’s humility and willingness to let others have the spotlight.
“She’s obviously our stud, and sometimes when you have that type of kid they get full of themselves or they don’t think they have to work as hard, and that’s not Danielle,” he said. “She acts like shes the 25th-best player on the team. That’s her attitude. That’s the way she carries herself.
“And you can tell with her teammates that they really like her. The kids play hard for her and want to do well for her, because she doesn’t walk around like she’s this big prima dona. Even though she knows she’s talented and confident, she doesn’t have the arrogance that sometimes matches that. She works extremely hard and doesn’t carry herself poorly.”
Even when losses on the field come along, Gabriel handles them well.
“I was brought up on the concept that you can be a good winner but you have to be a good loser as well, and you have to take what happened that day and learn from it,” she said. “You can’t dwell on the past. You have to learn from it and move on.”
Malek believes Gabriel exemplifies what it means to be the consummate leader.
“She’s been a captain for two years,” he said. “But Danielle’s even a leader off the field. When we do fundraisers and stuff like that, she’s always prepared and always gets things set up. She’s not lazy with anything.”
And despite any adversity she’s faced during the past four years, Gabriel wouldn’t have rather been anywhere else but on the softball field.
“I don’t know what else I’d do without it, she said. I’ve never thought about giving up on softball. It’s the thing that’s kept me sane. I get on the field and all my worries go away. It’s the place where everything makes sense.”