Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Van Wagnen shows Miss Softball title no fluke after earning D-I spot

Jillian Van Wagnen always knew she could play Division I softball.But when the 2008 Lorain County Miss Softball was choosing schools, she didn’t get much response from D-I schools.

A campus visit to Ohio University excited her, but making the Bobcats’ softball team seemed far-fetched, as the Mid-American Conference team was one of the MAC schools she sent her tapes to that didn’t show interest in her.

That didn’t stop Van Wagnen from pursuing her dream of playing college softball at that level, despite the obstacles that stood in her way. She decided to try and walk-on and become a non-scholarship player to play on the softball team, which is a rarity.

Van Wagnen missed the original meeting for a walk-on tryout because she wasn’t feeling well. The next day, still ill, she was over an hour late, but didn’t realize it. After getting several puzzled looks and being informed she was late, she stretched and got loose for the tryout that she didn’t think she would excel in, especially with the situation at hand.

"They decided to give me a (extended) week tryout," Van Wagnen said. "On that first Monday, right after lifting, they wanted to do a running segment. Coming on as a walk-on, I was getting a lot of dirty looks like ‘Who’s this girl’. The first sprint, I blew everyone out of the water. Everyone’s mouths were wide open, like ‘Wow’. They still talk about in practice, when I shocked everyone. Ever since then, I’ve just worked my butt off and I’m at where I’m at now."

Despite excelling her freshman season as a walk-on and this year in her sophomore season, she recently suffered her second setback of her young college career. She crushed her index finger in batting practice. She had surgery last Monday and the doctor had to insert six screws, a plate and close the surgery with six stitches. She’ll also be in cast for two weeks, so her season may be over.

"I was batting and swung at a pitch and the pitch came inside on me," Van Wagnen said. "It crushed my finger against the bat. I tried batting and then when I put my hand back on the bat, I saw blood. I thought, ‘It’s probably not a good thing.’"

Her injury is the second of the sort on the same left hand. Last year, she fractured a joint in her pinky finger and missed five weeks to start the season.

The two hand injuries were the first injuries she sustained since her sophomore season at Admiral King when she fractured a vertebrae in her back playing basketball. Other than that, she’s never been hurt, even while playing baseball for 10 years.

"Usually when you think of a broken finger, your first reaction is throw a popsicle stick on it, give it a week and you’re good to go," Van Wagnen said. "But for my misfortune, both of them had to have surgery. It’s frustrating, because it’s my second injury to the same hand. I was having a great season. I was batting .316 with 11 stolen bases and I was really starting to pick up my game."

She returned after her first hand injury last season to play in 37 games, including 27 starts. She finished the season with a .290 batting average and six stolen bases, which was good for second on the team. Just a freshman walk-on, Van Wagnen was also awarded the team’s Wendy Fox Award, which is given to the player who exhibits the most drive to succeed.

The team award and her success at this level motivates her to get past her new setback and get back to playing softball for her junior and senior seasons.

"I’ve always wanted to play D-I," Van Wagnen said. "Coach (Pam) Jackson told me that smaller schools were interested, but I said ‘No, I just want to play D-I. If D-I wasn’t for me, at least I gave it my all’. It’s a remarkable experience and I couldn’t ask for anything more. It’s great. And plus coming from Lorain, it makes me happy that I can represent Admiral King."

At Admiral King, Van Wagnen earned 16 varsity letters in tennis (four years), cross country (two years), golf (two years), basketball (four years) and softball (four years).

Her senior year in softball, she hit eight home runs and had 33 RBIs, while batting .535. She also scored 32 runs and had 14 steals, while hitting No. 3 in the Admirals’ lineup. That earned her Lorain County’s Miss Softball award.Van Wagnen didn’t even start playing softball until her freshman year of high school. She played in Lorain Youth Baseball for 10 years with mostly boys and even played football in her seventh grade year. And despite friends and family encouraging her to try softball, she’s always liked the competition in baseball a lot more.

"There’s stuff in football I learned that I still use today," Van Wagnen added. "And playing baseball with the guys for all those years has really benefitted me. I grew up with a lot of my teammates so I never felt that I was on a different level. I always stayed up with them. If I didn’t, they would let me know."

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