As the deep sky blue settled into the evening dusk, a color that once rested on the shoulders of an 11-year-old watching her older sister conducting a game from behind the plate, the pair of Johnnies stroll from opposite ends of the 105-acre Queens campus to the corner of Grand Central Parkway and 168th Street for a St. John’s practice.
Alyssa rolls into the Red Storm Field parking lot after departing her office in Carnesecca Arena, ready for practice, while Kamryn speed walks from St. Albert Hall down University Road through Village Path to the Johnnies’ home turf.
Alyssa has been an assistant coach with the Red Storm softball team for four seasons while Kamryn has been an active member for two. It was not an easy road for the pair to get to St. John’s, but their experiences have built an unbreakable bond.
For the oldest Tiumalu child, the path to the top level of NCAA Softball was filled with countless hours in the cage and working on the fundamentals. After years of sacrifice, she secured one of the nation’s most sought-after roster spots, suiting up for the UCLA Bruins.
Alyssa battled through her four years in Southern California, fighting one of the worst injuries any athlete, let alone a catcher, could face.
After seeing her freshman season come to a halt by an ACL tear, the former Bruins’ backstop was shelved again over parts of the next three campaigns with concussions and lingering shoulder problems, losing her love for the game.
“Kam and my family were at everything and it was a big thing for them.” Alyssa said. “I felt that there was a pressure of ‘what are my sisters going to think?’ and to lead by example for them. It wasn’t fun anymore because I was doing hard work and I wasn’t performing well, but I stuck it out for my family and I’m so glad I did.”
Kamryn stood in awe of her older sister.
“When we were younger, I was always at games, watching her play and I was like ‘wow, my sister is going to UCLA,’” Kamryn said. “Seeing what she did, being so mentally tough, I wanted to follow in her footsteps because I looked up to her and she was my motivation to keep going.”
Watching the struggles of her role model and the perseverance to finish what was started resonated with the younger Tiumalu, as she embarked on her own rocky journey to Division I.
A late bloomer on the diamond in high school, the younger Tiumalu was destined for Division II and fell out of love with the place that she once felt was home. Set to attend and play for St. Martin’s in Washington, Kamryn felt out of place within her first week and was ready to make a leap of faith.
“I talked with my dad and Alyssa, saying it was not a good fit for me,” Kamryn said. “It didn’t match my abilities or work ethic.”
With Alyssa rekindling her passion for softball following her first season with the Red Storm and Kamryn searching for the reset button, the timing was perfect for former St. John’s head coach Amy Kvilhaug to make the call and bring the second Tiumalu to Queens.
Upon arrival, questions circulated, wondering how a pair of sisters, one a coach and the other a player, were going to interact. Would Kamryn get special treatment over other players? How would the team trust the staff to not play favorites?
“If you were an outsider on this team, you wouldn’t know we are sisters until you looked at the roster sheet,” Coach Tiumalu said. “I treat her like a player, not my sister.”
“It’s not difficult for us to turn it on or off,” Kamryn added. “But I had to make it clear to my teammates that softball and our stuff outside of softball were separate. We made that something we would never discuss and still don’t.”
From an outsider’s perspective, senior third baseman Gretchen Bowie said, “when we step on the field, you wouldn’t be able to tell they were sisters besides their appearance. If anything, I can see Coach T holding Kam to a higher standard and expect the best out of her every time we are taking reps, hitting or playing, but Coach T expects that out of all of her players.”
Under the business-like mentality displayed by the Tiumalus on the diamond, there exists a structure of love and support that holds them both up.
“We were in Florida [during the first weekend of the 2019 season] and I gave her a pep talk because she was going to start,” Coach T reminisced. “She had been playing well and I said, ‘mom and our sisters were watching. Whatever you do, go play for you. Don’t worry about what anyone says, do what you do best.’”
“She makes me feel better just knowing someone believes in me,” Kamryn said of the same weekend. “I always have that with her and she has me. We wouldn’t be good without each other.”
After years of the typical bickering and arguing that often accompany a seven-year age gap between siblings, the duo grew closer immediately, having to make up for the miles of separation from their other support systems.
“If I needed anything, I had her,” Kamryn continued. “Having her there every day, I knew I could call and talk to her whenever. Since she’s [started] coaching me, we have gotten closer because its only us out here.”
Just when the duo started to place their feet firmly in the batter’s box, finally reaching a moment of stability, the East Coast Tiumalus expanded from two to three.
“I cried when she told me she was pregnant,” said Kamryn about her October 2018 conversation with her sister. “I was excited, and now I get to spend time with him the most.”
These two Johnnies rallied around each other to help limit the strain through the 2019 season. Kamryn tried to shoulder the load on road trips, grabbing Coach T’s bags to put her sister’s mind - and body - at ease.
Through the countless trips and hours together, the relationship blossomed in time for the baby’s arrival.
“We didn’t communicate as much when we were younger and now we relate to each other more on what we go through every day,” Alyssa added. “Kamryn being on the team has made me a better person, coach, and mom. I feel like I can be the best person I can be because she’s here with me.”
“We had to learn how to be patient together,” Kamryn added. “We both had to overcome obstacles because nothing is ever easy in life or in sports.”
With all that’s happened over the past few years both on the field and off, it’s safe to say that both Tiumalus, player and coach, are different than they were when the first stepped foot on the Queens campus.
“Having a child changed the way I coach because there is no ‘one way or the highway’ anymore, it’s, ‘how can I be better for you?’ and each girl is different.” Alyssa said. “I’ve become more focused on understanding, nurturing and taking care of the girls, having been in their shoes, with a new perspective.”
“I learned how to be more mature and be professional having her there, keeping that respectful standard between us when its softball versus sisters,” Kamryn added.
“Becoming a mom has been the most rewarding and proudest moment of my life and we’ve gotten to take this journey together,” Alyssa said. “Family is everything. We are really lucky to be a part of each other’s lives through softball, motherhood and dreams because you don’t know when you won’t be.”
In addition to the bond of biological sisterhood, Alyssa and Kamryn also share connection to a larger family, one that wears red and white.
When most children take their first steps, their parents, maybe a lucky grandparent or sibling, are usually the only onlookers. For 10-month-old Lukas, his first steps came in an airport terminal, surrounded by 20 cheering aunts who were awaiting their flight to go play in California.
Softball already helped define one generation of the family, it’s only fitting that it has already played such a big role in the next.
Editor’s Note: This article was contributed by the St. John’s Athletic Department.