COLUMBIA – Jenna Marston had never traveled outside the United States. Suddenly, wherever she went she was surrounded by soldiers carrying machine guns who were assigned to protect her and her teammates.
Marston was in Maracay, Venezuela, representing the U.S. at the 2010 International Baseball Federation Women’s World Cup. The Venezuelan government assigned soldiers to protect the players representing the various competing nations, but the extra precautions could only do so much.
Illinois State (35-17)
vs. Missouri (46-7)
WHEN: 6:30 p.m.
WHERE: University Field
Toward the beginning of the tournament, a player from Hong Kong was struck in the leg by a stray bullet during a game against the Netherlands. The incident took place in Caracas, about two hours from Maracay, but it shocked everyone involved in the tournament.
As her first taste of international travel, the experience made Marston thankful for where she lives.
“Going in there, we knew it wasn’t the safest place, and we had to be smart in where we went and with who,” Marston said. “In that sense it was kind of eye-opening that people live seeing people with machine guns walking down the road. It’s really cliché to say, but it definitely made me proud to be American and really grateful for all that we have.”
Marston had never heard of the IBF Women’s World Cup before she was recruited to compete on the U.S. national team. But just being on a baseball diamond provided Marston with a sense of familiarity in Venezuela.
The surroundings, however, did not.
After the Hong Kong player was struck in the leg by a stray bullet, the Hong Kong team withdrew from the tournament and other countries considered doing the same.
“That was the first time that sports had ever been a life-or-death choice,” said Jenny Dalton-Hill, one of Marston’s teammates. “That was unique. Sports had always been something I did for fun. That really put into perspective that it’s just a game.”
The tournament organizers decided to move the remaining games to Maracay, and no other nation withdrew. Back home, Jenna Marston’s father, Bill Marston, knew his daughter would be well protected. It was his wife, Cindy Marston, who he was worried about. Cindy Marston was staying in Caracas with other players’ parents during the tournament.
Cindy Marston made the trip, but she had reservations beforehand. Venezuela is notorious for its role in drug trafficking, so Cindy Marston contacted a friend who had worked for the State Department and been stationed in Venezuela.
“When I called her, she said, ‘Oh my gosh, what are they thinking? Why are they doing this?’ And I thought, ‘Oh no,’” Cindy Marston said. “Then she said, ‘As I think about it, Venezuelans love their baseball, so as a team going down, they will be just fine. You, on the other hand, have to be very very careful, and I don’t recommend that you go.’
“So I really came close to not going. But as soon as I knew there were other parents I could meet up with and stay with, then I was fine with going. And I’m really glad I did.”
While experiencing Venezuela for the first time, Jenna Marston and her mother also witnessed a whole new side of baseball. Not only was Jenna Marston playing against women from all over the world, but she was playing in front of enormous, raucous crowds.
“Our game against Venezuela, we had 16,000 to 17,000 people there,” Jenna Marston said. “We had battle of the bands going on. They had a band in left (field) and a band in right (field). It helped to learn how to concentrate and just block out all of that.”
Jenna Marston quickly became adept at blocking out all distractions, putting on one of the best all-around performances of any player in the tournament. She led Team USA in batting average (.593), and led the tournament in hits (16) and doubles (8), while playing various positions in the field, including shortstop and outfield. Jenna Marston also pitched three games, finishing with a 1-1 record and a 1.91 ERA.
“She was a delight because you could put her anywhere,” said Don Freeman, Team USA’s manager. “You could put her some place she’d never been before and she would still do a good job.”
In the consolation game, Jenna Marston went 2-for-2 at the plate with two doubles, two RBIs and two runs to lead Team USA to a bronze medal with a 15-5 win over Venezuela. At its conclusion, Jenna Marston was honored for her play throughout the entire tournament by being named to the All-Tournament Team.
“It’s our belief, and there was one representative from the selection committee that (said) if we had been in the gold medal game that she would’ve won tournament MVP,” said Ashley Bratcher, director of USA Baseball’s women’s national team.
Tim O’Brien, Team USA’s pitching coach, said such a statement certainly isn’t a stretch. Still, the thing that impressed him most about Jenna Marston was how she handled herself.
“There was never a time when her performance was about her,” O’Brien said. “I will use her as an example in coaching for the next 20 years. I firmly believe with all my heart that she had that tournament because she was just playing for the team. There’s not a selfish bone in that kid’s body.”
Aside from the honors and praise Jenna Marston received from those watching the tournament, O’Brien thinks her most important accomplishment was earning the veteran U.S. players’ respect.
“She comes through in every situation. Whether she’s at the plate or in the field, you know if Jenna’s involved it’s going to be fine,” Dalton-Hill said. “It was a pleasure to spend time with her and to play with her. I wish I could be young again so I could have more time playing with her.”
Bratcher had never heard of Jenna Marston when she was watching the Missouri softball team play Texas A&M on ESPN2 last season. When Jenna Marston, now a sophomore for the Tigers, came up to bat, the announcers caught Bratcher’s attention when they discussed her past baseball experience.
At the time, Bratcher was working to assemble a team to represent the U.S. in the 2010 IBF Women’s World Cup in Venezuela. When she heard about Jenna Marston, Bratcher contacted Missouri softball coach Ehren Earleywine, who then put her in touch with Jenna Marston.
Jenna Marston first went to a regional tryout in Chicago over the July 4 weekend. Freeman had never seen a Missouri softball game or seen Jenna Marston pick up a glove before she tried out for the team. But he knew right away she had talent.
“You can tell a person can play (baseball) by watching them play catch. Watching her play catch, we did some skills testing things, and she stood out,” Freeman said. “She was one of the better ones. I saw her take just one swing at the baseball and I knew we wanted her to go to Carey, (North Carolina) to try out for the team.”
But Jenna Marston was hesitant.
“When she was invited to go to the team trials in North Carolina, she initially turned them down,” Bill Marston said. “They really wanted her, so they called back.”
In the end, it was Earleywine who convinced Jenna Marston to go to North Carolina.
“She called me and said, ‘I don’t know if I want to do this. What do you think I should do?’ And I said, ‘You need to do it,’” Earleywine said. “Especially as it relates to her shyness, I just thought it was something that she needed to do to get out there because JJ’s natural tendency is to shy away from the limelight.”
Avoiding the spotlight is nothing new for Jenna Marston. Her coaches and teammates describe her as “humble” and “quiet.” While Earleywine praises Jenna Marston for her humility, he says her quiet demeanor can work against her.
“She’s an introvert, she’s shy and sometimes she plays that way,” Earleywine said. “As a shortstop and as a good player, these kids respect her and tell her to communicate and be more vocal.”
Being louder and more talkative is something Earleywine has been working on with Jenna Marston. Sophomore Nicole Hudson, who is one of Jenna Marston’s teammates with the Tigers, roommates and best friends, said she is showing some improvements.
“Getting loud is something JJ’s always struggled with. She worked really hard this fall, and Coach Earleywine was constantly on her about talking more and being louder,” Hudson said. “I always joke with her and make fun of her that all she does is whisper out there. But she’s getting better and getting louder, and occasionally I can even hear her now out on the field.”
Jenna Marston makes up for her lack of communication with her intent listening. And, according to her different coaches, she processes everything she’s told. That, Earleywine says, makes her “super coachable.”
“A lot of kids…they always tell you they know everything, and they look at you and say, ‘Me? I was all-state in high school.’ She’s not like that, she is totally coachable,” Earleywine said. “The biggest thing that she can do that a lot of other girls can’t is that when you tell JJ to do something, physically she has a real good feel. So it doesn’t take her but two or three times and she is doing whatever it is that you told her.”
Earleywine’s favorite conversations with Jenna Marston usually come when he’s not coaching her. The two share a baseball background, so Earleywine thoroughly enjoys simply talking baseball with her.
“I have conversations with JJ that I can’t have with the other kids. It happens all the time and I just love it. It’s like I finally get to spill the real me,” Earleywine said.
Jenna Marston grew up talking baseball, in addition to playing and watching it. Her father, Bill Marston, played college baseball at Principia College in Illinois and coached at Principia High School in St. Louis. A devout Cardinals fan, Bill Marston watched as many of their games as he could, and was usually joined by his daughter.
“When I had the Cardinals game on TV, she’d come and sit down next to me,” Bill Marston said. “She would listen to what all the announcers would say and we talked about all the things that would happen. So she really developed a baseball interest.”
When Jenna Marston would go to her older brother’s baseball games she wouldn’t run off and play like most young kids. Instead, her father said, “she was one that when she would go she would focus on the game.” After the games, Jenna Marston would play catch with her father and brother back home.
Jenna Marston always played different sports, but she loved baseball the most. As she got older, she played on organized teams. First, on an all-girls team when she was young, then on co-ed teams and eventually in high school, where she played for her father. At Principia High School, Jenna Marston continued to participate in multiple sports, playing basketball in the winter and baseball in the spring. In the fall of her freshman year, Jenna Marston tried out a new sport: softball.
“It was either that, cross-country or volleyball,” Jenna Marston said. “I knew that I would just go play softball because I’d always played baseball.”
Jenna Marston found instant success on the softball field. After her freshman season her father asked her high school coach how good he thought she was and could be.
“He said he thought she could possibly play Division I softball if she would commit to softball. I think she thought that would be a cool thing to do, and I think that’s when she decided that she would start playing softball in the summer instead of baseball,” Bill Marston said.
It wouldn’t be long until Earleywine, and many other college coaches, would be showing interest in Jenna Marston. After seriously considering Northwestern and Mississippi State, Jenna Marston settled on Missouri.
“This (Missouri) was closer to home, which is nice. It’s nice for my parents too, getting to come and watch,” Jenna Marston said. “I definitely felt like the program here was on the rise and we are doing really well. I felt like there was a good shot to win a national championship here as well as good academics. It was just an all-around good fit.”
Now, Jenna Marston is helping Missouri in its quest for a national title. With its sweep of Iowa State in a doubleheader this past Saturday and Texas’ eventual loss to Baylor on Sunday, Missouri was crowned this year’s Big 12 champion.
Heading into her sophomore year, Jenna Marston was regarded as one of the top players in the country. She was named to USA Softball’s top 50 watch list for the College Player of the Year Award before the season began. Jenna Marston is no longer in the running for the award, and she hasn’t quite performed as well at the plate as many expected — but the experience she gained from her freshman year has helped her mentality against tough opponents this year.
“The first time you play all these Big 12 teams it’s a cool experience,” Jenna Marston said. “You’re like, ‘I’m playing Texas right now.’ I guess this year it’s less of an, ‘Oh my gosh' experience and more like, ‘This is what we can do.’”
Jenna Marston once again proved she can do plenty. Starting 52 of the Tigers’ 53 regular season games this year, Jenna Marston was a constant at shortstop. She settled comfortably into her role as the second batter in the lineup, hitting .338, to lead the team in runs (49), while tying junior Ashley Fleming for the team-lead in doubles with 15. At the conclusion of the season, Jenna Marston was named to the All-Big 12 First Team as a shortstop.
Missouri begins its postseason quest for a national title with the NCAA regionals, which it will host this weekend for the third consecutive year. DePaul, Indiana and Illinois State will all be in town, and Missouri will play its opening game at 6:30 p.m. Friday against Illinois State.