Softball pitcher Christina Toniolo

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A standout collegiate softball pitcher, Christina Toniolo took her game to an unimagined level after she was recruited by the manager of Team Italy.

In early 2020, just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, softball pitcher Christina Toniolo had a feeling she needed to pick up a phone call whose ID said “Italy,” even though as a rule she ignored unknown calls.

That decision changed her life.

Toniolo, who will be 23 this month, is a member of Italy’s national women’s softball team. Though she graduated last year with a degree in biology from the University of Illinois Chicago, she chose to stay in college this year and continue to play with the UIC team to make up for the season lost during the pandemic.

Growing up in Crystal Lake, Illinois, Toniolo started playing softball around age 8 with her older sister in a recreational league coached by their father. “It was really fun for him and fun for us,” she recalls. She also played basketball and some volleyball, but eventually decided to focus on softball.

She played all four years at Crystal Lake South High School and in a competitive travel league starting at age 16. She was then recruited to play at UIC, whose team made it to the NCAA Columbia Regional her junior year.

In February 2020, Toniolo pitched well during a UIC vs. Fresno State University game in California that happened to be attended by Team Italy’s then-manager, who took note. The fateful phone call came a couple of days later.

On the other end of the line was Italy’s recruiter, who inquired whether Toniolo was an Italian citizen and if she wanted to join the team. That led her to apply for citizenship, which she attained in early 2021. “It was kind of surreal for me,” she recalls. “I didn’t even know that was a possibility.”

Her introduction to Team Italy in summer 2021, however, was less than auspicious.

Toniolo was the youngest member, with many of her teammates close to graduating college or already playing in pro leagues. She also didn’t speak Italian, although about one-third of the team is composed of players from the United States. Most importantly, her skills weren’t up to par.

“Softball-wise, I was not up to their level when I first showed up. They are very competitive and they are a very successful team, and I was not having success when I first went there,” she says.

Not one to give up, Toniolo came home motivated to work hard and do everything she could to elevate her game. The next time she reunited with the team at a training camp at the University of South Florida in January 2023, it was a different story.

“It was much better. I knew the way they ran things and I knew how hard they worked. I was able to bring myself up to their level and compete with them — and have fun while doing it.”

Toniolo was part of the Italian national team that placed third at the Canada Cup International Softball Championship in 2023. In fact, she pitched in the game that Italy won against Canada, the first such win since 2012. Next month, she’ll play with “le Azzurre” in the Women’s Softball World Cup.

Pitching is as mental as it is physical, Toniolo explains. “Every day I am in the bullpen, I pretend it’s game day,” she said. “That way, on game day, I am able to get into my zone and I am ready to compete.”

Playing for a national squad is an exhilarating experience, she says. “People have pride in their university and have pride in their teams, but to have pride in a country … it’s just next-level.”

Toniolo plans to eventually go to dental school, but for now she’s taking it year by year, wanting to play softball as long as possible.

“I am hoping to join a team in Italy’s pro league,” she says. “I’ve always wanted to live there and experience that. My grandparents talk about it all the time. They love it and would want nothing more than for me to experience that.”

The above appears in the June 2024 issue of the print version of Fra Noi. Our gorgeous, monthly magazine contains a veritable feast of news and views, profiles and features, entertainment and culture. To subscribe, click here.

 

About Elena Ferrarin

Elena Ferrarin is a native of Rome who has worked as a journalist in the United States since 2002. She has been a correspondent for Fra Noi for more than a decade. She previously worked as a reporter for The Daily Herald in the northwest suburbs of Chicago, The Regional News in Palos Heights and as a reporter/assistant editor for Reflejos, a Spanish-English newspaper in Arlington Heights. She has a bachelor’s degree from Brown University and a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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