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May 18, 2012

Sister Reunited at Tech

By: Jimmy Robertson

Junior first baseman Courtney Liddle and freshman pitcher Bailey Liddle share an unbreakable bond, a passion for softball and their faith, and concern for their mother

Courtney (left) and Bailey Liddle

One is a blond, the other a brunette. One wears outfits with splashy colors, the other prefers more subtle hues.

One possesses such a bubbling personality that she’d talk to home plate, while the other answers questions in hushed tones. One takes academics seriously, the other admits a lack of urgency in that particular area.

One nearly went to college in Oklahoma, the other forfeited a modeling career that would have sent her jet setting all over the world.

On the surface, sisters Courtney and Bailey Liddle seem to have little in common. But dig beneath the surface, and one finds that the two rock in the sport of softball, express a passion for their faith in God, and share an overwhelming concern for the health of their mother, who is battling breast cancer.

Fortunately for Hokie Nation, they do all this together these days on the Tech campus.

The Liddles are two main reasons why head coach Scot Thomas’ youthful softball squad exceeded expectations this season. The Hokies concluded the regular season with a 38-18 mark and figure to advance to the NCAA regionals for the first time since the Angela Tincher reign ended (2008). Courtney, arguably the heart and soul of this bunch, served as the team’s slugger and was only one of two players on the team to hit better than .300 this season. Bailey, who walked on to Tech, emerged as the team’s desperately needed second pitcher behind ace Jasmin Harrell and won key games against North Carolina and league regular-season champ Florida State among others.

That they have come to excel in the sport is no surprise. Both started playing the sport at a young age in their hometown of Haymarket, Va., a small community only minutes away from the Washington, D.C. insanity. Courtney attempted other sports, including figure skating – “I was too big for that, way too big,” she laughed. – and Bailey, the younger of the two by 18 months, did the same simply because Courtney had tried them.

Softball won out – with both.

“I looked up to her [Courtney] with everything I did – school, softball, everything like that,” Bailey said. “She would always get good grades, and there would always be that competition in the house.

“Even in softball, during the season, we would compete with batting average. Even after she left and came here [to Tech] and I was in high school, I’d always text her and say, ‘I’m catching up. Watch out!’”

She had to be a pretty good player to catch up with Courtney, who ranked as one of the nation’s best prospects following her senior season at Battlefield High School. The Group AAA player of the year hit better than .500, with 10 bombs and 41 RBI, and got an offer from Pac-10 power Arizona State. She also visited Oklahoma and considered both Auburn and North Carolina.

Courtney knew all about Tech because of her grandfather, Bill Latham, who is a rather influential alumnus. He founded Budget Motels, Inc., and has served on Tech’s Board of Visitors and many other prestigious committees and councils. The university named Latham Hall, the home of the school’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences as well as the College of Natural Resources and Environment, after him for his contributions to the school.

“That actually pushed me away from Tech a little bit,” Courtney said. “I wanted to take my own direction.”

She nearly committed to Oklahoma. But as often happens to young kids, a visit to Blacksburg for a football game swayed her.

“[Former players] Misty Hall and Charisse Mariconda were my hosts, and they just had this confidence, and they were so comfortable to be around,” Courtney said. “We went to a football game, and we’d walk around tailgates and random people would offer me fried chicken or just to come sit at their tailgate. They had no idea who I was, and that’s just how the Virginia Tech community is.

“I went to my dad and I said, ‘Dad, I really love this place,’ and he said, ‘Me, too.’ I didn’t expect it at all, but it was just an instant fit. It took me a while to get over my pride of wanting to go off in my own direction, but once I did that, I knew it was VT all the way.”

It should have been an exciting time for Courtney, going to college and meeting new friends and starting the next phase of her life. But she received some horrendous news not long after tucking in her sheets and fluffing her pillow in her dorm room.

Susan Liddle, the mother of Courtney and Bailey and the family leader, found out from doctors that she had a recurrence of breast cancer. Originally diagnosed in August of 1998, she underwent surgery to get a tumor removed. But in September of 2009, while bringing Courtney home for the weekend, she received a call from the doctor with the bad news.

At that moment, I realized I could lose my mom – the most important woman in my life,” Courtney said. “I started crying, but my mom rubbed my back and comforted me. I felt terrible that she was comforting me in a moment when I should be comforting her. But that's how she always was and still is – so strong, never for one moment thinking she will lose the battle.”

The insidious disease forced her to undergo multiple surgeries, along with radiation and chemotherapy. The radiation burned her chest and sternum, and the poisonous concoction of the chemo made her sick.

Bailey, a junior in high school at the time, their father, Biff, and the rest of the family pitched in to take care of Susan. But Bailey felt alone without her older sister, and Courtney felt sad about not being there to help.

“There wasn’t a time when I thought about going home [for good] because I know who my mom is, and that would have made her angry if I had dropped all of this [playing softball on scholarship at Virginia Tech] to go home,” Courtney said. “But talking with my family and learning things second hand and not feeling like I could be there for them, that really got to me. That consumed all of my thoughts.

“My mom has always, and still is, a very strong woman. She’s very strong willed. She’s the kind of woman who is going to tell you what’s on her mind and will fight through anything. I think it was hard for B [Bailey] to see that woman in her life start to deteriorate. The woman who had been so strong for us was needing to rely on us. So it was hard for B.”

“That was hard because I usually go to my sister when I’m wanting to talk to someone, and she wasn’t there,” Bailey admitted. “I would call, but I didn’t want her to have to worry about mom while she was away at school. When my mom would get sick, that was tough because I didn’t have Courtney to talk to, and I didn’t want to worry her. But we got through it.”

In some situations, young adults turn to drugs or alcohol or crime as a way of coping. Courtney instead went in the opposite direction. She found solace from a higher power.

That fall, she became involved with Campus Outreach, a faith-based organization on campus. She became friends with a young woman, who served as a quasi-counselor for Courtney, telling Courtney that her father had passed away from cancer. They spent an hour or two each week reading the Bible, and shortly thereafter, Courtney started texting Bible verses to Bailey. When she went home on breaks to see her mom, she and Bailey often prayed together.

“I definitely believed in a God, and I felt Him moving in my life, but I hadn’t spent the time to get to know Him,” Courtney said. “When there were people to guide me in that, it was just amazing. He is what got me through coping with my mom and He is what got me through coping with some injuries I’ve had. He is what gets me through every day.

“I wanted my sister to have that same help to get her through. I wanted her to see the light on the other side.”

After a while, Bailey saw the light. On Oct. 14, in her first fall at Tech, she accepted Christ into her life.

That Bailey made it to Tech could be viewed as a bit of a surprise. After all, she gave up softball in the fall of her junior season and contemplated moving to the workforce instead of trekking to classes on a daily basis.

That’s because, on the advice of a high school teammate, she decided to attend a school for modeling. At nearly 6-foot tall, thin, and with dark hair and hazel eyes, she made for the ideal candidate.

“I went to a graduation runway show where agents and scouts attend,” Bailey said. “I had 11 scouts call me back. Then I signed with Justin Perry from Empire Model Management, and I got some job offers.”

Her agency wanted to send her overseas for a couple of jobs, but she ended her modeling career not long after it got started. Her parents weren’t all in, and then she herself decided she didn’t really want to give up softball after all.

“My parents were definitely pro-softball during all this,” she said. “They didn’t like the idea of me being in the fashion industry that much just because it is kind of dangerous when you’re talking about sending your 17-year-old daughter to Asia for a month. They also didn’t want me starving myself just to please the agents and the clients.

“I definitely thought about sticking with modeling. I don’t know if it was to rebel against them [her parents]. But then I realized modeling wasn’t going to last forever, so there was no point in choosing that when I could be really happy playing softball.”

She rejoined the Battlefield High softball team that spring and played great her final two years, earning all-state honors. She hit better than .500 both seasons and started gaining the attention of college coaches.

She received offers from Florida International and Cornell. She even considered UVa despite her grandfather’s Hokie connections and her sister being at Tech.

“Courtney was giving me a tough time about that,” she said.

But Bailey ended up coming to Tech as a walk-on, saving her grandfather a heart attack. She re-established her close relationship with her older sibling and became a valued member of the softball squad this spring. She and Courtney don’t live together, though, and have no plans to do so next year, Courtney’s last at Tech. That decision provides the perfect boundary for the two of them, giving them space to do their own things, if they choose.

“I guess I was worried about living with Courtney because I didn’t want her to think she had to take care of me,” Bailey said. “I didn’t want her to think that she had to play the mother role and tell me what to do. I think it’s good we’re living separately.

“When I first came here, I thought she and I would be spending every second of the day together, and it really hasn’t been that way, which I think is a good thing. We don’t want to be sick of each other. We go to church together, we go to Campus Outreach together, we see each other at practice … but other than that, I don’t see her during the day that much.”

These days, they do the things you’d expect sisters to do – hang out, have dinner together, chat about softball, go to church together, talk.

And worry.

Susan Liddle’s condition is stable. According to Courtney, she takes pills daily to keep her estrogen levels down – estrogen feeds the cancer – and she lives comfortably.

“She still has breast cancer – and may always have breast cancer,” Courtney said. “But she lives comfortably now. She’s healthy and comes to all our games. She still can’t be as active as she was or as feisty, but she’s healthy.”

Tech honored Susan by having her throw out the first pitch at one of the team’s games, a game in which the Hokies recognized Breast Cancer Awareness Day. No matter where the ball would have landed, given her condition, she would have thrown a strike.

Yet the sisters still worry about her future.

“Yes, because it’s still real,” Courtney said. “The doctors have told my mom that, one day, cancer is going to take your life – we’re postponing it with hormone treatments, but one day, that [the cancer] is what will kill you.

“It’s easy to push that off because we hope that it’s far away. But I still think about it every day when I talk to my mom on the phone.”

It’s a tough situation for two young, college-aged women with such bright futures. But Susan’s illness has put things into perspective. They’ve learned more from this than they’ll ever take from a stodgy classroom.

The lesson is simple. Take advantage of every opportunity – the next one may not come along.

“You always hear people complain about things that are normally okay to complain about,” Bailey said. “But once my mom got cancer, you’d hear people talk, ‘Oh, I can’t get my nails done’ or stuff like that. And you’re like, ‘Really? That’s your biggest worry right now?’

“It definitely put things into perspective. You never know when that day is going to be your last day. Just live life to the fullest and be happy all the time.”

Rest assured, they’re doing that. And they’re doing that in the manner that they’ve done pretty much everything else in their lives.



Who is more outgoing? Courtney: “I think B is more outgoing. She has way more friends than me. She was always the popular girl in high school. She loves being in the spotlight. Other than being on the softball field, I don’t like the spotlight.” Bailey: “Courtney. She’s really welcoming and inviting to talk to. I’m really shy at first and stumble over my words a lot.”

Who is more patient? Courtney: “Probably me. I think that gets back to the age difference and the experience and the maturity.” Bailey: “Probably Courtney. When I have to get something done, I want to get it done. I don’t want to have to wait around for it.”

Who is the better student? Courtney: “Probably me. I think that’s just because I’m a junior and she’s a freshman trying to figure it out.” Bailey: “Courtney. Especially now because I haven’t quite figured out all the time management stuff, but she’s always studied harder. I haven’t put the time into studying that she does.”

Who tweets more? Courtney: “Her. Oh my goodness. Especially her senior year of high school and when she first got here. She probably has 6,000 tweets.” Bailey: “Me. I tweet way too much. It’s stupid.”

What’s one thing about your sister that no one else knows? Courtney: “She doesn’t give herself enough credit. She’s very modest. I think she doesn’t believe in herself sometimes. She’s not as confident as it comes across.” Bailey: “We give her crap about having no sense of direction at all. She gets lost a lot, and that makes it a pain to drive with her. I’m always telling her where to go, and she just laughs it off and I’m getting frustrated telling her directions.”

Future plans?Courtney: My No. 1 dream would be to take a few years and go on staff at Campus Outreach and just dedicate the first years out of college that I have free to meet with girls and encourage them and help them learn about Christ. If God doesn’t open that door, then grad school is a possibility. I graduate next December [in communications]. I wouldn’t mind being and advisor, like they do over at SAASS [Student-Athlete Academic Support Services]. I don’t know. I don’t want to leave Blacksburg. I want to stay forever.” Bailey: “I really like the public relations aspect of it [the fashion industry]. If I really decided that I was still interested in the fashion industry and not the modeling, I could do public relations or work for an agency or a company or a designer. I’m also interested in sports broadcasting.”

Who is the better softball player? Courtney: “She could kick my butt at pitching any day. She has struck me out a time or two in team scrimmages. Also, she has a stronger throwing arm than me. I do think I’m the better hitter, though.” Bailey: “Courtney, for sure. It comes to her naturally. I’m a better pitcher, but she’s a better catcher, a better first baseman and a better hitter. Overall, she’s just a better player.”