It didn’t take Jennifer Mast long to realize her life ambition.
By the time she was playing as a sophomore first baseman for the Rock Bridge softball team in 1991, she had all but decided on a career.
“Growing up, I just really enjoyed the camaraderie I had with teammates and the impact my coaches had on my life,” Mast said. “By seventh grade I knew I wanted to be a coach.”
So in the spring of 1999, when then-Rock Bridge athletic director Jeff Moore offered her the head coaching position at her alma mater, the decision to take the job was a no-brainer.
“I’m extremely loyal to Rock Bridge,” said Mast, who lettered three times as a catcher and first baseman for the Bruins. “I love the fact that the girls I coach are all Bruins. I mean, I wore the uniform, I played on the same fields, I got to play Hickman. It’s just real neat to think about stuff like that.”
Now in her sixth year as coach, Mast has used her background and approachable demeanor to develop into a favorite among players.
“The kids love her,” Rock Bridge athletic director Vicki Reimler said. “There’s just so much passion in her, because (softball) was part of her life as a player and now it continues on as a coach. I’d say she bleeds green and gold.”
This season, though, has tested Mast’s moxie. The Bruins, after starting the season 3-2, have sputtered recently, and enter today’s game against Hickman in the opening round of the Class 4 District 10 tournament with a 6-15 record.
The team returns one senior from last year’s team, and bothstarting pitchers, junior Kayla Turnbull and sophomore Kelsey Oerly, entered the season having never thrown a pitch in a varsity game.
“Sure,” Mast said, when asked if she finds it hard to stay motivated during a tough season. “There are definitely times when things aren’t going quite the way you’d like them to, but you just have to keep after it.”
What keeps her pressing for wins is the girls that show up day after day at practice with their trademark teenage optimism.
“The kids are just so good,” said Mast, who is also an assistant basketball coach. “They’re fun to be around and they like to be around each other, so you can’t stay frustrated for too long when you get to practice and see them.”
The Bruins have lost both games against the Kewpies this year.
Instead of dwelling on those statistics, though, Mast is trying to make the rest of the season, however long it might be, as enjoyable as possible for her players.
“We’ve only got two more days until that next game,” Mast said Monday. “And from there on out, you never know what’s going to happen. I just want to make sure the girls have fun. This is (the team’s only senior) Emily Lay’s last week of practice, I want to make it a good couple of days.”
This laid-back attitude has been a staple for most of the year. While players are quick to point out that she works them hard, they have appreciated the way Mast has alleviated the pressure to win.
“She takes things seriously,” Turnbull said. “But she doesn’t make things too stressful or make a situation bigger than it is. We’re always joking around at practice and games, making fun of each other. And that’s important. It’s important to have fun.”
In the world of high school athletics, Mast understands that people often get caught up in the importance of wins and losses.
“That’s how we measure success in sports,” Mast said. “And I’m not saying that’s wrong, but it’s pressure. I’d just rather take the pressure off and let the kids have a good experience than force them to worry about whether or not we’re winning every game.”
It is this philosophy that has also earned Mast the respect of the school’s athletic department, including Reimler.
“She is truly a good person,” Reimler said. “She has the highest integrity, no matter what happens during the season, or what the situation is, she’ll never take it out on the kids. She runs a very solid program.”
Mast hopes to take that program further next season, when the Bruins will return eight starters, all of whom have gained valuable varsity experience this fall.
While Mast isn’t sure exactly how long she would like to continue coaching, she says that, for the time being, it is something she is thoroughly enjoying.
“You know, I love it,” she said. “Seeing these kids develop and mature in the three or four years they spend in the program, that’s just a real rewarding experience.”