Jenny Gilbert turns on the power
MUNCIE, Ind. -- The afternoon temperature was stuck in single digits, the wind chill mired in negative numbers, as it seemingly had been for much of January in this town an hour northeast of Indianapolis. It explained why when Ball State senior Jenny Gilbert took her lead off first base in a practice drill, listened for a coach's command and dove headfirst back to safety, she did so not on dirt but on the unforgiving floor of the school's multipurpose indoor track facility.
The high temperature on the day was nearly 30 degrees lower than that in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, which in addition to simply sounding like a place that should set the standard for cold, was Gilbert's birthplace.
It was fitting weather in which to find a player who should this season claim an unofficial crown as college softball's all-time cold-weather slugger, passing Michigan's Samantha Findlay in career home runs among players who played for schools north of the snow line and east of the mild winters along the Pacific coast. The conditions also seemed a natural fit for a rising star on the Canadian national team who should this season pass her teammate on that roster, former Georgia Tech star Jen Yee, for the most home runs by a Canadian-born player in NCAA history.
Far from the warmth and sunshine of places like Arizona, California and Florida, and equally far from the spotlight on the famous programs that reside there, this is how the other half lives in college softball. Indoor practices and floor burns. Scarce live pitching. At least a month and a half of continual road trips once the regular season begins.
Few have lived it better than Gilbert, whose rising stock indicates she is only now losing her status as one of the college game's best-kept secrets.
"You never know what you're going to get when you're talking to someone with her background, the accolades that she's had in her career so far," said Ball State first-year coach Tyra Perry, who like most of the softball world knew Gilbert primarily by her statistics until arriving in Muncie. "In her case, she is one of the most humble people I've ever met. She does what she does very well and at a high level, but she is so interested in the team and Ball State and being a good teammate -- things that sometimes with players who are as accomplished as she is you may or may not get."
Even if she, too, could do without the wind chill that left Ball State's deserted, snow-covered diamond in the deep freeze on that January afternoon.
Gilbert is not, it turns out, a product of the frozen tundra that seems to fit her legend. She instead grew up in Texas, and a necklace with a small outline of the Lone Star State still hangs around her neck.
That's not the half of it. The player who is chasing all those home run accolades, who could finish this season among the top 10 home run hitters in NCAA history, was a pitcher and a slap hitter when she arrived at Ball State.
Most prolific sluggers can't recall the first home run they ever hit. Oklahoma's Lauren Chamberlain, the only active player with more career home runs than Gilbert, laughed at the impossibility of it when asked last season. The first was a long time and a lot of trots ago.
Gilbert had no such trouble.
"I remember it going over the fence," she said. "I kind of just stared at the ball like, 'That's over the fence; what's going on here?' I didn't really know what the heck I was doing trotting around the bases."
The clarity of the memory comes because she was a senior in high school when it happened.
Gilbert may have been a late bloomer as a power hitter, but she knew what she wanted out of softball at an early age, which is why her birthplace is more than a biographical quirk. Her family moved from Canada to Denton, Texas, before she was old enough to store any memories of the former. Still, even before she was old enough to understand how much better her odds were north of the border, given the size of the respective talent pools, she dreamed of one day playing softball for Canada, not the United States.
"I was born there," Gilbert said. "That's my home country."
She described her goal of playing for Canada in the emails she sent to colleges to make her case as a potential recruit. Those in turn caught enough eyes in enough of the right places, including those of Nebraska associate head coach and former Canadian national team coach Lori Sippel, that Gilbert earned an invitation to the Canadian junior national team and traveled in successive years to tournaments in the Czech Republic, Colombia and South Africa, the first two before she ever took a class at Ball State.
All that was left was to completely overhaul the way she played the sport.
Now the coach at Arizona State, former Ball State coach Craig Nicholson figured he had someone who could help fill out his pitching staff and slap hit. But when she kept slapping balls to the depths of the outfield in batting practice, he told Gilbert he wanted to see her swing away. When the balls started sailing over the fence, she stopped being a slapper. And she never threw a pitch in a game.
Gilbert hit 15 home runs and slugged .691 as a freshman, the home runs a school record.
She also struck out twice as often as she walked. This was raw potential at work.
"Her freshman year, she would swing at anything that got thrown at her," Nicholson said. "If it was yellow and moving, she was going to swing at it. The transformation for her now is that she's become a very disciplined hitter. That's the big difference from her freshman year, even to her sophomore year and into her junior year. What she swings at has completely changed, and it's made her a much better hitter."
Gilbert's natural ability carried her a long way, and perhaps there was a selective eye waiting to be exercised, but doing so took hours and hours in the batting cage. Nicholson would tell some hitters to swing at bad pitches in batting practice to help them learn how to fight off adverse counts at the plate. With Gilbert, it was always the same message. She proved she could hit just about everything that first season. But what could she hit best?
"My freshman year, I didn't really have an established sense of what I wanted to swing at," Gilbert said. "Whatever the pitcher's best pitch was, I would try to hit it hard. But in college it doesn't always work out that way. College pitchers are good. They've mastered those pitches. It's why it's called their pitch because they're good at throwing it."
Gilbert broke her own school record for home runs as a sophomore and added the record for doubles. The home run record fell for the third consecutive season when she hit 23 as a junior. Only four players in the nation had better slugging percentages or hit more home runs per game a season ago.
As opponents learned the hard way what she could do with any pitches left close to the plate, they gave her less and less to hit. She waited more and more patiently for what she could hit.
An aspiring coach, Gilbert even gives the hitting lessons now, instructing girls in the Muncie area.
Gilbert seems destined to play the underdog role. It will take a minor miracle for Ball State to reach the Women's College World Series this season, although a list of goals posted in the locker room includes winning an NCAA tournament regional. It will likewise take something special for Canada to win gold at this summer's ISF World Championship in the Netherlands, although ending a 36-year medal drought in the event seems within the realm of possibility.
But some people like the underdog. Especially one who hits like Gilbert.
"Little girls who are just starting out in softball will come up to me and tell me I'm their favorite player," Gilbert said with no small degree of bemusement. "That's probably the best thing I've ever heard. Until I got to the senior [national] team, I didn't think of myself like a little girl would say, 'I want to be like Jenny.' It made me tear up a little bit."
It is difficult to imagine anyone following quite the same path. It is equally difficult to imagine more convincing proof that there are any number that a person can follow to go places.
In that respect, there are a lot of girls who would do well to want to be like Jenny.