April 2007 – Cocoa Beach, FL
Mandy Matula rolled the optic yellow sphere in her right hand, instinctively feeling for the raised stitches that allowed her to manipulate its speed and trajectory. Forty feet away stood a swarthy young Ohio baseball player, his aluminum bat waving menacingly in her direction.
Moments before, they had been poolside with their high school teammates debating the respective difficulty of baseball versus fastpitch softball. Girls throwing softballs underhand didn’t compare to their sport, the boys declared.
“Mandy could strike any of you out!” one of her teammates countered. And the challenge was on.
The showdown was to take place on the asphalt parking lot of the Cocoa Beach motel where both teams were staying during their spring break trip. Dozens of car windshields glistened in the warm Florida sun and motel windows surrounded them.
Meanwhile, Mandy convinced one of her teammates to don catching gear to intercept the pitches that most certainly would sail, untouched, past the bat of her male midwestern counterpart.
She leaned in, as if for a sign. But she knew what she was going to throw. In softball parlance it’s called a rise ball and it was Mandy’s go-to pitch. Starting low from her windmill release point, the ball spins madly from bottom to top starting about waist high and, with great velocity, approaches the batter at eye level. Then the spin, speed and air resistance combine to cause the ball to suddenly dart upward above any flailing hitter’s bat.
As she prepared to begin her windup, Mandy was interrupted by Eden Prairie High School (EPHS) Head Coach Dan Rubischko who had heard the commotion from his room and had arrived moments before she would have released a 60+ mile per hour projectile down the car-lined corridor.
Looking around at all of the glass, Rubischko asked her what she was thinking.
“Coach, you know he was never going to hit me anyway,” she replied with a big smile.
May 2, 2013 – Blaine, MN
Six years later, Rubischko would be coaching his varsity squad on a ballfield in this northern suburb when a player’s parent approached him grim-faced.
Mandy Matula was missing, he said.
And moments ago, the ex-boyfriend Mandy had been with the night before had committed suicide in the Eden Prairie Police Department parking lot. He had left behind no information about Mandy’s whereabouts.
Mandy’s mom Lisa Matula wasn’t surprised back in 2007 to hear about the Florida story. Mandy had a mischievous side, she acknowledged. And the charmed smile she had disarmed Rubischko with was a Mandy trademark.
Her friendly and fearless demeanor is one of the reasons she wasn’t concerned when Mandy left her Eden Prairie home the evening of May 1, 2013 to talk to her ex-boyfriend. She left her phone and purse behind, not intending to be gone long, Lisa said.
“Mandy always said she wasn’t afraid of him, that she could handle him,” she said. “She was going to tell him that night that she was going to be seeing someone else that weekend and I think that is what made him snap.”
Despite having broken up the previous November, Lisa later learned that Mandy had been followed, stalked. While she said Mandy had never been physically abused, she had been verbally abused.
Lisa believed for a long time that Mandy was alive, that she was out there somewhere, maybe having lost her memory – or maybe hurt.
She wasn’t alone. The Eden Prairie community banded together to search for her. They canvassed nearby Miller Park where the ex-boyfriend had told Lisa they went to talk before she left to walk home – in her stocking feet.
Colleagues, softball players, friends and family searched lakeshores and riverbeds, parks and fields. Based on information recovered from the man’s phone, authorities initiated searches in the northern metro where he had spent time fishing.
Weeks and months passed with few leads.
Then, on Oct. 26, 2013, a man walking his dog discovered Mandy’s remains in a state park near Sartell, Minn. She had been shot once in the head.
Mandy Matula was born on Jan. 14, 1989 in Minneapolis. She attended Cedar Ridge and Oak Point elementary schools, Central Middle School (CMS) and then EPHS.
She started playing softball in 3rd grade, Lisa said. Early on, she played all positions, but soon she knew she wanted to be a pitcher.
“Wayne (Matula, Lisa’s ex-husband and Mandy’s father) would sit on a bucket in the front yard and she would pitch,” Lisa said. She played summer softball with Eden Prairie teams with names like Fire, Heat, Blaze, Inferno and Twisters. She had pitching coaches and attended clinics whenever they were available.
“She went to clinics in the little gym at CMS until we got booted out by a belly dancing class,” Lisa recalled with a smile.
In high school, Mandy blossomed, finishing her career with a third-place finish in the 2007 Minnesota State High School softball tournament. It would be 12 years before another Eden Prairie team would qualify for a state tournament berth.
Mandy wore the number 14 throughout high school. To this day, a banner with her number is displayed on the varsity dugout at every home game. The number 14 is no longer worn by high school players.
After graduation, Mandy attended the University of Minnesota – Duluth (UMD), majoring in business. She played outfield and did some pitching, but she lost much of her junior year to an ACL tear and resulting surgery.
Every summer, Mandy would return to her hometown where she worked for the City of Eden Prairie, mostly cutting grass in parks – including her home away from home, Miller Park.
“She loved that job,” Lisa said. Not only did she get to work outside, it kept her connected to softball. She coached younger players and mentored those who wanted to walk in her footsteps.
Mikayla – Duluth, MN
One of those players was Mikayla Runge. Now 21, Mikayla grew up in Mandy’s household with Lisa – and Mandy by extension – as her nanny. Eleven years younger than Mandy, Mikayla idolized her friend.
Mikayla was the recipient of the first Mandy Matula Scholarship in 2019 given by the Eden Prairie Fastpitch Association (EPFA). The scholarship requires applicants to write about what domestic violence means to them.
Mikayla, a sophomore at UMD majoring in business and minoring in deaf studies, talked about Mandy via a Zoom call. Tears ran down her face as she recalled her friend.
“My favorite thing to do with Mandy was running to her and jumping into her arms and I would give her a monkey hug,” she recalled. “I never got over that.”
Mikayla was just 13 when Mandy disappeared.
“She was like a sister, like a therapist to me,” she said. “She meant a great deal to me and I didn’t realize how much she meant until she passed away.”
Memories are still painful for Mikayla, even as she acknowledges all of the laughs and fun she had with Mandy.
“She was kind of everything to me,” she said.
Mikayla played high school softball for a couple of years and, not surprisingly, she wanted to be a pitcher. “I saw Mandy pitching, so I wanted to pitch,” she said, smiling through her tears.
When Mandy passed away, she stopped.
Mikayla says she continues to work through her grief over Mandy’s death. But it’s hard for her even to come home to Eden Prairie because of the raw memories. Even so, she knows eventually she will come home and one of her first stops will be Mandy’s resting place.
“I need to do that,” she said.
Sonja – Eden Prairie, MN
Sonja Roby didn’t meet Mandy until they played high school softball together. Two years older, Sonja was a varsity player when Mandy came along as a star pitcher.
They became teammates again at UMD, where their friendship grew.
After college, Sonja and Mandy ended up working at the City of Eden Prairie, Sonja as a facilities service specialist and Mandy as a parks maintenance technician.
“The first thing I think about with Mandy is ‘headstrong’,” she said. “She’s exactly the last person that you would expect to be any type of victim. She was a big strong girl and … she wouldn’t take crap from anyone.”
There were red flags in Mandy’s relationship with her ex-boyfriend, Sonja said. “But the problem is much bigger than any two people or one incident,” she said.
Societal and gender norms in society reinforce domestic violence, she said.
“Boys are conditioned to show strength and aggression while girls are expected to be polite and accommodating,” she said. “It sets the stage for the domestic violence dynamic.”
Breaking that cycle would help, she said. But she thinks it goes beyond that.
“If more men would view seeking help for mental health issues as a strength versus a weakness, more women would give themselves permission to have stronger boundaries,” she said.
Sonja keeps her friend’s memory alive with a photo collage of the two of them together hanging in her city hall cubicle.
“She was unbelievably kind and loyal,” she said.
One of her favorite Mandy stories occurred after their college days. They ran into each other at Miller Park one spring afternoon. Sonja was an assistant high school junior varsity coach and Mandy was throwing batting practice for the varsity team.
Sonja hadn’t played competitive softball for a while, but she asked Mandy to throw a few pitches for her to hit.
“We didn’t have a catcher and I didn’t have a helmet,” Sonja said. “But we found an empty field and used a backstop.”
The first pitch from Mandy was high and tight – commonly known as chin music.
“I looked at her and said, ‘Mandy!’” Sonja said. “She said, ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry.’”
The next pitch was down the middle and Sonja drove it right back at a ducking Mandy, just missing her.
“She threw down her glove, I threw down my bat and we said, ‘That was fun!’” Sonja said.
Lisa – Chanhassen, MN
Lisa Matula is grateful for the memories of Mandy and she is grateful for her 4-year-old grandson, Tucker, son of Mandy’s brother, Steven, but she clearly is still haunted by the tragic loss of her daughter.
Her townhome walls are covered with images of Mandy, Steven and Tucker. She shared a video of one of Mandy’s summer teams, recalling the names of each player and then going silent as Mandy’s smiling face crossed the screen.
Lisa remained a fixture at Miller Park after Mandy’s death, running tournaments and the concession stand for 19 years before retiring.
“Memories of her were the reason I stayed so long,” she said.
There is a bench and plaque at Miller Park dedicated to Mandy’s memory. They sit just a few feet from Field 6, the varsity’s home turf. The EPFA hosts a tournament each year in Mandy’s memory.
“Mandy loved softball. It was her life,” Lisa said.
“I miss her every single day.”
The Mandy Matula 14U Tourney is scheduled for Sept. 11, 2021 at Miller Park.