After one semester at Southeastern Louisiana University, former Lady Longhorn softball pitching star Rachel Ray wasn't sure she wanted to remain at a school thousands of miles from home.
"She was about ready to come back (to Payson)," her mother Nina Ray said.
For Rachel, the adjustment from small-town life to going toe-to-toe against the challenges of university academics and division 1 athletics was daunting.
After graduating from Payson High in 2003, she turned down a scholarship at nearby Paradise Valley Community College to accept a last-minute offer from SLU.
"I knew (college) was going to be tough, but I wanted to make it work," she said.
"Some (teens) from small towns quit (college) and go home, I didn't want to do that. I just had to give it enough time."
Ray says her decision to gut it out and continue her education at SLU was one of the best choices she's made in her life.
"I just love it here now," she said. "When I go home to Payson to visit, I can't wait to get back here."
For Ray, the town of Hammond -- where SLU is located- is an exciting place to live, grow and learn. She calls it a typical college town with a diverse culture not much different than Tucson.
"There's a lot of young people here, ones my age," she said. "There's good things for us to get involved in and I've met a lot of different people."
Former Lady Horn excels on, off the field
Her adjustment to a new lifestyle also has resulted in academic and athletic success.
After being relegated to the Lady Lions' bench most of the last softball season, she's now seeing plenty of playing time and has made pitching appearances in more than 20 of SLU's games.
Academically she is maintaining about a 3.30 GPA, majoring in nursing.
In posting a 2-2 pitching record and about a 2.80 earned run average, Ray has been one of the Lady Lions top relievers.
Last week, she was listed on the Southland Conferences "Pitching Honor Roll" for her relief pitching efforts in helping SLU sweep Texas-Arlington.
April 9 against Sam Houston State in Huntsville, Texas, she earned her first start of the season.
Although the former Lady Longhorn gave up a one-run home run and was saddled with the 2-0 loss, Ray enjoyed the challenge of being a starter.
"It's a lot different (than relieving), but something I can do," she said.
Since joining the SLU team, Ray has continued to perfect the pitches she relied on as a Lady Horn.
"I still have a change-up, fast ball, drop and curve," she said. "But I also have a rise ball, too."
In making the adjustment from high school to collegiate softball, Ray has discovered that she must devote much more time to the sport.
In high school, the season is just about two months long, doubleheaders are a rarity and teams play about 20-plus games.
In D-1 play, SLU opened the season Feb. 11 and will play about 50 games, many of them twin bills, before the season wraps up May 6-8 with the Southland Conference championships.
"In conference, every Saturday we have a doubleheader," Ray said.
Rather than traveling to Show Low, Lakeside and Snowflake as Ray did in high school, she now regularly visits Baton Rouge, La., Tallahassee, Fla., San Marcos, Texas, Grambling, La. and Oxford, Miss.
"We miss a lot of school because of the travel and number of games" Ray said. "We have to really work to stay up with school (academics)."
Saturday, Ray and her Lady Lion teammates play host to Northwestern State.
After a doubleheader, the team returns to the Hammond field Sunday for a single game.
Ray expects her role in the games to be that of a relief specialist hopefully trying to protect a lead.
"I'll probably go in as the closer," she said.
In between showdowns, Ray will struggle to find the time to do homework, study for exams and find a little free time for herself.
"(College life) gets hectic some times, but I love it," she said. "There's nothing I'd rather be doing than this."