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Former East Bay standout Cox excelling for UT

Published:   |   Updated: April 10, 2013 at 12:49 PM
TAMPA -

Life is going well for University of Tampa junior pitcher Kayla Cox.

At the end of March, the slender right-hander from Riverview owned the second-best earned run average (0.56) of any NCAA pitcher, while her 228 strikeouts placed third.

Cox, an All-American who set three school records last season, is 19-4 for the Spartans, the 17th-ranked team in Division II and preseason favorites to win the Sunshine State Conference.

Off the field, the former East Bay High standout is pursuing a professional modeling career and is in a serious relationship with professional baseball player Eric Fornataro, a pitcher for the Memphis Redbirds, the St. Louis Cardinals’ Triple-A affiliate.

The athletic ability, attractiveness and limelight may depict a person privileged to a wonderful existence. But in Cox’s case, it was simply due.

Two years ago, Cox sat in her dorm room at North Carolina State, which she attended on a full athletic scholarship, depressed and lonely. Though she saw plenty of action as a freshman, starting 27 games and finishing with a 14-14 record, Cox was homesick. Softball, the sport she’d loved for so long, had lost its allure.

“I just wanted to be home with my family,” she said. “I’m very family oriented.”

The product of a troubled childhood, home for Cox meant her grandparents, Jack and Betty Miller, who raised her and her older brother Josh because their parents, both substance abusers and drinkers, were deemed unfit to raise them.

So when Cox asked for a release from N.C. State, her only option was Tampa.

“And I knew that I was going to have trouble being released from Division I,” she said. “I probably would have to sit out a year and I didn’t want to sit out. I want to play right away.”

UT softball coach Leslie Kanter heard rumors of Cox wanting to leave N.C. State. After filing the correct paperwork, she was granted permission to speak to Cox.

“Once we were able to talk, it was a no-brainer,” Kanter said.

In her first season at UT, Cox threw three no-hitters, including the team’s first in postseason history; set a school record for ERA (0.34) and consecutive innings without an earned run (832/3); led the nation in earned run average, strikeouts per seven innings and hits allowed per seven innings and didn’t allow an earned run in conference play, all while making the all-conference honor roll.

Kanter said Cox’s dominance extends beyond physical attributes.

“She’s also mentally tough,” she said. “She doesn’t like people to hit off her, she doesn’t want to walk anyone and she certainly doesn’t like to lose.”

The added bonus for Cox is succeeding with her family watching from the bleachers. A few years ago, her mother was diagnosed with untreatable stage 4 cirrhosis of the liver. Though her death seemed imminent during Cox’s high school days, her mother has lived beyond the previous prognosis, partly due to being free from alcohol. Cox’s father, whom Cox said also has turned his life around, is attending UT games, too.

For a family that has suffered the death of two of Cox’s siblings, one to an overdose and another in a car accident, gathering at UT has become a celebration.

“I think it makes her feel good,” said Rhonda Lecornu, Cox’s aunt, with whom Cox now stays. “If it wasn’t for her playing ball, there wouldn’t be a lot of interaction like that. She’s definitely well loved by her parents.”

Cox is open about her life’s struggles. She’s posted her biography on UnashamedAthletes.com, a platform for athletes to share their religious faith, and will shoot a video production at her church in Ybor City retelling her life story and how it brought her closer to God.

“I’ve grown a lot,” she said. “That’s the foundation of my life.”

The Spartans have never won a softball national championship and Cox is determined to deliver one before she graduates, just like she did at East Bay, where she led the team to its first state title in her final year.

“It’s definitely a little pressure,” Cox said. “But I love pressure. I kind of thrive under it.”

nwilliams@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7305

Twitter: @NickWilliamsTBO

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