The learning curve for joining high school softball was not difficult for Amanda Penna, who had been playing the sport competitively since age 8.
But since that time, Penna also had been playing with a much different and more dangerous curve — the curvature of her spine.
Penna was diagnosed with scoliosis. The curve in the upper part of her spine kept getting worse and worse. So did her back pain.
By her eighth-grade year at Corona del Mar Intermediate, Penna said the scoliosis had gotten severe. Her spine curved 78 degrees, and it's painful just to write that. Think about how a right angle is 90 degrees, and Penna had to live everyday with a spine that was curved nearly as much.
"It was hard to sit down for a while," Penna said. "When I was about to go into surgery, I couldn't even move without taking a couple Advils a day. It was just that bad, where I would have to lay down."
It was a lot to deal with for Penna, who was then just 13, but surgery was the only option. Penna had it in September, 2009. Due to the straightening of her spine, she immediately grew three inches from 5-foot-6 to 5-9. Since then, she has grown two more inches.
The pain is mostly gone for Penna, though she said she now has two rods and many screws in her spine. It is better than the alternative.
"If I didn't get the surgery, I'd probably be having a really hard time breathing," she said.
Penna has fully recovered. She's a sophomore first baseman at CdM, and she's off to a good start to the season.
Penna, who is batting .306 this year with 12 runs batted in, has helped Corona del Mar accomplish a lot already. Last week, the Sea Kings made the championship game of the La Quinta Aztec Challenge before falling to University, 10-1.
CdM is 7-6, and can add to the win total when they play a doubleheader at Estancia on Saturday. The Sea Kings have not even won more than seven games in an entire season since 2007.
Penna is a big part of the improvement. As the No. 3 hitter, she helps set the table for senior cleanup hitter Lindsey Susolik. Her height and length also help at first base, especially in softball, where there are so many bang-bang close calls at first.
"She's just a really good team player," CdM first-year coach Kiki Muñoz said. "She's consistent. She leads by example."
This was also true as a freshman last year, when Penna batted .329 and was second on the team with 21 RBIs. She also pitched quite a bit. She provided stability during a difficult time, when CdM Coach John Felicetti resigned during the middle of the year and Jerry Jelnick took over.
Penna and her teammates just had to make the best of the situation, but she still felt nervous. In a program with no junior varsity team, was this the end?
"We weren't really close with [Felicetti], as it was," she said. "But It was scary, because we thought we might lose our program too. We thought that if no one could coach the team, we'd just have to drop softball. It was hard. It was difficult and it was nerve-wracking, but at least we got to play."
Last fall, Penna got nervous for a different reason. She separated her left shoulder while diving back to a base during an off-season drill.
She tried to play through it, which only prolonged the time she missed. This time Penna didn't need surgery, but she still didn't like watching from the sidelines. Penna wanted to show what she had to Muñoz, a former All-American catcher at Cal State Fullerton, and assistant coach Rhiannon Ousley, who helped lead UC San Diego to the NCAA Division II championship last year.
"They didn't know if we were going to have tryouts or not," Penna said. "It was frustrating ... but we didn't have tryouts, and I got better and I got to play. It was all good after that."
Things are going well for Penna, who has a bright personality and a nice smile. But usually she's the one taking the photographs, not posing for them. She is the photo editor for the CdM school newspaper, Trident.
Different interests are healthy for Penna. She has always been serious about her softball, playing in Newport-Mesa Girls Softball and training with Chrissy Haines. But Penna never became a travel-ball player. When she was younger, she shared time on the softball diamond and as an ice skater.
Before school, Penna went to practice at Aliso Viejo Ice Palace. After school, it was softball practice.
Now Penna said she wants to join a travel-ball team this summer. Softball is suddenly something she can see playing in college.
As for her scoliosis, Penna said she does still have a small curve in her lower back. If it gets more severe, she might need to get surgery again, though she said that probably won't happen.
"Every once in a while, I'll have lower back pains, but it's not as bad as it was before at all," Penna said. "Now I can just focus on getting better at what I love to do, which is softball."
She is standing taller than ever.
Born: Feb. 14, 1996
Hometown: Newport Coast
Coach: Kiki Muñoz
Favorite food: Italian
Favorite movie: "Happy Gilmore"
Favorite athletic moment: Being named MVP in Pacific Coast Girls Fastpitch Softball and helping her 10-and-under team, "Black Attack," win the league title in 2007.
Week in review: Penna's play offensively, as well as defensively at first base, helped the Sea Kings make the championship game of the eight-team La Quinta Aztec Classic.