Dad died drinking. Close friend died sleeping. She keeps going thanks to softball and unbreakable bond

Photo: Doug McSchooler/for IndyStar

Dad died drinking. Close friend died sleeping. She keeps going thanks to softball and unbreakable bond

Softball

Dad died drinking. Close friend died sleeping. She keeps going thanks to softball and unbreakable bond

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NEW PALESTINE, Ind. – Here are some things you should know about New Palestine junior Michaela Jones:

She’s known as Mic to her family, friends and teammates. She loves music. Her favorite artist is either Fleetwood Mac or Frank Ocean. She loves fashion, she’ll upcycle clothes or cut them up and turn them into something new. She loves her sister. They’re inseparable.

She’s good at softball, too. She won a state title last season. She can catch, she can play shortstop, she can hit. She committed to Maryland as a freshman.

You should know that her dad was largely out of the picture by the time she was 3 years old. She watched him slowly succumb to alcoholism and went to his funeral as a 6-year-old, not understanding why everyone around her was crying or that he wasn’t coming back.

When she was a freshman, her world was shaken again when her best friend fell asleep and didn’t wake up. The death of Abby Rejer shook a community — including Michaela.

You should know this: Michaela has been knocked down — again, again, again — and keeps getting back up. And she knows that you can, too.

‘She watched him slowly die’

Angela Phillips talks with fondness of her first husband, Jason Jones. He was a man of many talents — he loved music, could play instruments and everyone loved him. His uncle was a pharmaceutical guru, and his family was one of the wealthier ones in St. Louis. But he had demons, too. His own father had died when he was 19. Eventually, he took to the bottle. Quietly.

“You would never know, if you knew him in the community we used to live in,” Phillips said. “People never knew he was struggling with this addiction.”

Most of Michaela’s memories of her father are from the waning moments of his life.

“He was a true alcoholic. It was a true addiction. She really didn’t have her dad after she was 3,” her mom said. “We did a lot of supervised visitations. She watched him slowly die.”

Phillips eventually remarried and moved to Greencastle. Her second husband, Gary, was a former baseball player. Michaela took up the sport, and her older sister Mackenzie soon followed. One day, their father came to watch one of their games in Belle Union.

“I’ll never forget this. He fell down in front of them and their stepdad had to go out and help him up and walk,” Phillips said. “She saw the weakest part of him. That was hard for her.”

When Jason died, the explanation Phillips gave to Michaela was simple: He got really sick, and the doctors couldn’t do anything about it.

“To tell her that her dad was dead was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in my life,” Phillips said. “There was always that hope that he was going to get help and snap into the person I knew he could be and wanted to be, and she would learn how to play the guitar, and they would go to concerts together.”

It wasn’t until middle school that Michaela would learn the real cause of her father’s death.

“It’s a shock,” she said. “For the longest time I didn’t know what actually happened, and now I’m figuring it out. I had in my mind that it was just sickness. It was actually something more.”

Sisterly Love

Early on, softball became a source of healing. She started playing Tee-ball with the boys, then played softball, and was playing travel ball by the time she was in third grade. Her stepdad spent countless hours with her.

“It helped us bond,” Michaela said. “He spent so much time working with us, it definitely brought us closer.”

She always played with her sister, even though Mackenzie was two years older. It was a focal point of a friendship that transcends the baselines. But it’s undeniable that a bond was naturally forged through the loss of a parent.

“No one else knows what that feels like besides us,” said Mackenzie, who just finished her freshman season at DePauw. “It makes it easier when you don’t have to go through something alone. No one else knows what we’ve been through, and it’s made us become closer in more ways than anything else has.”

When Mackenzie started to practice her pitching, she needed a catcher. And her mom only lasted so long.

“Once you go over 50 miles per hour, I am not catching you,” Phillips told her oldest daughter. So Michaela stepped in.

Michaela came into the New Palestine softball program as a freshman and the team needed a catcher…

“She didn’t want to catch,” her mom said. “But (Mackenzie) said, ‘Mic, we need you.’”

Two years later, Michaela would catch Mackenzie in the Class 3A state title game. They would end the day as state champions.

“Winning that state title is something I’ll never forget,” Michaela said. “Being with her made it so much more special.”

New Palestine High School sophomore Michaela Jones (22) has the help of teammate senior Mackenzie Jones (14) after her Championship medal broke after winning the 34th Annual IHSAA Softball State Finals class 3A game, Saturday, June 9, 2018, at Bittinger Stadium on the campus of Purdue University, West Lafayette. (Photo: Doug McSchooler/for IndyStar)

A friend named Abby

While Michaela and her sister have a strong bond, she admits “I pick and choose my friends wisely.” She largely keeps to herself. Her mom says Michaela “keeps her circle small.” So when she lost one of the people closest to her, it could have sent her world crumbling.

Michaela met Abby Rejer in seventh grade, and the two quickly became part of a small group that was inseparable. Michaela and her friend played on the basketball team, and they convinced Abby to become a team manager. The group had lunch together every day. They had the same classes. They’d end up at the same house every day after school. Abby would help Michaela with homework. Phillips would check her daughter’s phone and see texts to Abby asking for advice.

“Abby sounded like an old soul responding to Mic,” she said.

During spring break of her freshman year, Michaela went to Disney World with a friend. She was riding a go-kart when she got a call from her mom.

Abby had fallen asleep one night and didn’t wake up the next morning. An autopsy revealed no cause of death, leaving natural causes as the only explanation.

“It was so hard,” Phillips said of the phone call. “How much she loved this kid was unreal.”

“I just started bawling,” Michaela said when she heard the news. “I just ran off. We sat down and cried all night. It was just shocking.”

She showed up at Abby’s funeral, and she was just one of many of Abby’s friends in attendance.

“To the teenagers of this community, I do not even know what to say,” Abby’s mom Kristi Rejer said in a letter to the Greenfield Daily Reporter on April 12, 2017. “I have been awestruck by these kids and their strength. To show up at such devastation takes so much courage and dedication. We were astounded.”

The day of the funeral, Michaela played in her first varsity softball game. In her first at-bat, she hit a home run.

“That was Abby,” her mom said. “I just started crying.”

But one home run wasn’t enough to fix the pain Michaela felt. She says her mind is “always running and thinking about things all the time.” But she internalized her feelings.

“I thought I would break down if I talked about it. I didn’t like being seen as someone who was sad,” she said. “I always liked to be seen as someone that’s happy. The summer after freshman year, I struggled a lot with my mental health. I would hold things in. I was probably depressed.”

It’s OK to not be OK

Eventually, things changed. It wasn’t a moment, but a choice.

“I devoted my time to being happier and trying to dig myself out of that,” Michaela said.

Sports helped. But even that wasn’t all smooth sailing. During basketball season her sophomore year, she sprained her knee during a collision in practice and was limited to just 16 games. Last January, she suffered a stress fracture in her back and missed the final eight games of the basketball season.

Sitting out gave her mind plenty of time to wander.

“Then I’m just sitting around. I’d think more,” she said. “Sitting there and not having something to take my mind off was definitely hard.”

In the midst of the internal noise, her outward demeanor remained the same. On the court and the field, she exudes a quiet confidence that might overshadow her competitiveness.

“She’s got a steady presence. She just hates losing,” Dragons basketball coach Sarah Gizzi said. “You might not know that watching her from the outside, but there’s definitely a fire in there. But she doesn’t let it affect her steadiness.”

Her sister calls it swagger.

“She’s calm and stays true to herself,” Mackenzie said. “She doesn’t show when she’s upset and goes with the flow. She has a swagger. It’s intimidating. You know she’s there to compete, but she’s quiet about it.”

And when she’s on the field, everything else fades away.

“You leave everything else that’s going on behind,” Mackenzie said. “You’re not worrying about anything else. If she didn’t have it, she might not have something to go to.”

Michaela Jones of New Palestine High School slides in for a run as her team beat Kankakee Valley High School 13-6 for the 3A state softball title, on Saturday, June 10, 2017. (Photo: Robert Scheer/IndyStar)

This softball season has come with its own challenges. Namely, Michaela has had to navigate life without her sister being around.

For the first time, she wakes herself up in the morning. She gets her own coffee. She drives herself around town.

“She’s kind of like my mom, pretty much,” she says of Mackenzie.

Oh, and one more thing.

“The clothes. She took like half my wardrobe. That was hard.”

But the relationship goes beyond coffee and car rides.

Michaela’s emotional healing process began internally. If her thoughts began to race, she would pause and focus on a sound in the room or the color of a wall. She’d put pen to paper, writing her thoughts down to get them out of her head.

Eventually, she began to vocalize her feelings — especially to her sister.

“There’s stuff you don’t want to go to your parents about. You want to go to your sister,” Mackenzie said. “We’re comfortable. There’s no judgment. We can talk about anything.”

Now, Michaela is focusing on helping others who are struggling. Some of her closest friends have lost their parents.

“I bond with people that are like me,” she said. “If someone’s struggling with something, I try to reach out. It’s probably hard for them to reach out to someone else because I was once in that place, and I know it’s hard if you’re not feeling like your best self.”

Something else she’s learned? It’s OK to not be OK.

Her other suggestion? Pick up a hobby.

“Without softball, I would have a lot more free time, almost too much, to the point where my thoughts would overtake me,” she said. “I wouldn’t have any way to get my mind off things.”

She has plenty to accomplish during the last chapter of her high school career, starting with Saturday’s semistate softball games. But her steadiness won’t change. She’ll still listen to Fleetwood Mac and stay up to date on the latest fashion trends. She’ll still beg her sister to spend a night at home. She’ll quietly go about her business, putting up big numbers along the way.

But even if she doesn’t, that’s OK too.

“I put less pressure on myself,” she said. “I’m building relationships and having fun, and it’s almost a coping mechanism. Even if I have a bad game, it’s not the end of the world. There’s more things out there than just softball.”

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Dad died drinking. Close friend died sleeping. She keeps going thanks to softball and unbreakable bond
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