OKLAHOMA CITY — Ashanti Bruck is zeroed in on her mom.
Sitting on the footrest of a set of metal bleachers, the 15-month-old daughter of Missouri softball player Jen Bruck doesn’t take her eye off her mom. She puts her purple cup down on the bleacher, serving as her makeshift table, and starts to clap as fast as her small hands will move.
Her mom is standing in the batter’s box, trying to reach base against Texas Tech in Missouri’s opening game of the Big 12 tournament in Oklahoma City. And, although Jen Bruck can’t possibly hear her quiet clap, Ashanti cheers her on, waiting to see if anyone will join her.
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Jen Bruck is hard to upstage at a softball game. The senior has hit 47 home runs in her career, more than any player in school history. This season she is batting .326 with 43 RBI. And she pitches, too. She has won 76 games for the Tigers and holds a career ERA mark of 2.65.
But Ashanti, most of the time with her grandmother Dee Bruck chasing behind her, captured the crowd’s attention at more than one MU softball game this season.
Between innings, as music blared from the sound system, she’d stand in the aisle and dance, shifting her weight from one foot to the other, swinging her arms back and forth, struggling to get her small body to move as fast as the music.
“She thinks she’s the center of attention. She gets reactions everywhere she goes, so if somebody’s looking at her she’s going to flaunt around or whatever — smile at them, wave at them,” Jen Bruck said. “If somebody’s not looking at her, she’s just going to sit there and stare and wait for them to look at her, so she expects reactions from a lot of people.”
Raising Ashanti has been a team effort for the Bruck family. Although Jen Bruck keeps Ashanti with her in Columbia as often as her schedule will allow, during the season her daughter spends a lot of time with Bruck’s parents and sister in St. Peters, Mo.
“We talk several times a day,” Dee Bruck said. “We just coordinate, you know, I have clothes at my house, she has clothes at her house. We have two strollers, so garage sales have been a save for the budget. It takes a lot of planning for sure, but Jennifer manages to have the baby when she has to take her to the doctor for her checkups and stuff like that.”
While Jen Bruck is playing, both at home and on the road, Ashanti is usually in the stands with Dee Bruck, who made it a point, along with her husband Chris, to travel to as many as Jen Bruck’s games as possible during her senior season.
“She flies really well. She loves to travel, she loves to go and she gets way too much attention,” explained Dee Bruck, who said the family’s destinations have included Austin, Texas, Florida and Las Vegas this year.
“She loves the team. The team is all her mom's,” said Dee Bruck. “When we travel or after the game several of the girls make a point to come and hold her. Out of town when we have spare time, the girls play with her.”
Ashanti’s mom also loves the Missouri softball team, which is why she never even considered quitting after finding out she was pregnant.
“I just never thought (that) having a baby was going to end my softball career,” said Jen Bruck. “People kept telling me, ‘Are you sure you can do that? This is going to be so hard for you, and I don’t think you can do that’ and all this stuff. It kind of made me want it harder, so I found a way to get through it.”
In other words, she used the same attitude she uses when she’s on the field to return to the team and earn the first of her 21 victories during the 2007 season less than a month after she gave birth.
Whether on the mound, at the plate or talking about her performance after a game, Jen Bruck is intense. She is intimidating and unapologetically confident and unceasingly critical of her play.
She is harshly honest when necessary and, although she may claim to be excited or disappointed, she rarely lets a trace of emotion show.
So, it is startling to see a wide smile spread across her face when she talks about Ashanti, including their similarities.
“She is not afraid to do anything,” said Jen Bruck. “She’ll climb up on something, try to walk down the steps by herself. She’s not afraid to get hurt.”
Jen Bruck and Dee Bruck credit each other as the key to Jen Bruck’s successful return to the sport she loves.
While Jen Bruck said her parents’ support and help was the biggest reason she rejoined the Missouri softball team to complete two more All-Big 12 seasons, Dee Bruck acknowledged her daughter’s determination.
“She’s a tough young lady, really tough,” said Dee Bruck. “So she handles multiple tasks, and she strives to be the best at whatever she does.”
One part of striving to be the best for Jen Bruck is detesting losing — at anything, whatever the stakes or sport.
On Saturday, Jen Bruck lost the last Big 12 tournament game she’ll ever get to play in to a team Missouri had already beaten three times this season.
Afterward, she spoke of missed opportunities and strategic mistakes, ice wrapped around her right shoulder, like a hardened veteran of thousands of softball games. Then she spoke about her daughter.
“She’s just kind of my best friend, I guess,” she said, with tears filling her eyes but not quite streaming down her face. “She might not know what I’m saying, but I’m sure she kind of gets vibes on how I’m feeling. She listens to me. Sometimes all you need is somebody that’ll listen to you.”
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No Missouri fans joined Ashanti’s applause after her mom’s first inning at bat. Jen Bruck struck out.
Perhaps sensing something had gone wrong, the little girl who has “been born into softball” according to her grandmother, sends the stuffed Tiger sitting beside her onto the ground. She doesn’t start to cry, though, or even take her eyes off her mom.
Instead, as Jen Bruck returns to the dugout disappointed, her best friend begins to clap.