LACEY — Softballs whizzing near Taviah Jenkins are a little scarier these days.
The Saint Martin’s University starting center fielder will dance out of the batter’s box to get out of harm’s way, and sometimes – if the ball gets too close for comfort – she lets out a holler that can be heard from the nearby parking lot next to the Saints’ field.
“My teammates laugh at me,” Jenkins said.
It’s not an act or a show. Three years ago, while playing at George Fox University, a teammate’s line-drive foul ball shattered Jenkins’ jaw, requiring four plates, 20 screws and a
five-hour surgery to put her back together.
Jenkins has persevered from what she calls a “freak accident” to become one of the Saints’ top hitters. She’s hitting .353 and leads the team in home runs (seven) and RBIs (35).
“This game has taken me through a lot,” said Jenkins, who was standing on third base when she was hit.
“It’s true when they say you never know when it’s going to be your last time. I never would’ve anticipated that happening. It really developed my love for the game.”
‘WASN’T JUST A GLANCING BLOW’
During her freshman season in 2011, Jenkins made such an impression on George Fox coach Jessica Hollen that Hollen inserted the Castle Rock High School graduate into the starting lineup.
Two games into Jenkins’ season – which started with four hits in five at-bats, plus two runs scored and two RBI – it was over. Standing on third during the second game of a doubleheader against Pomona-Pitzer, Jenkins – who was wearing a batting helmet but not one with a facemask – barely had time to react to the liner. The ball hit her in the face and knocked her to the ground.
Hollen recalled the sound as “awful.”
“You knew it wasn’t just a glancing blow,” Hollen said.
Jenkins, whose jaw was broken in two places, never lost consciousness. She picked herself up and crawled to the dugout, watching the blood seep from her chin.
Her orthodontic retainer split her gums on the softball’s impact, but also prevented her from losing any teeth. Two days after the team returned to the Newberg, Ore., campus, she endured a five-hour surgery, plus a five-day hospital stay, at Providence Newberg Medical Center.
Kris Trindle, now a senior at George Fox who was Jenkins’ roommate during their freshmen season, remains good friends with Jenkins. She called what happened the most traumatic injury she’s seen.
“I can still picture the image of her standing on third base, and silence,” Trindle said. “That’s all it was.”
The two games in California on Feb. 11, 2011, were Jenkins’ only ones for the Bruins. She redshirted and still finished the spring semester with a full load of credits. Unable to eat solid foods for three weeks, she also lost 22 pounds.
“That was the worst part of it,” Jenkins said.
While she enjoyed the family-like atmosphere at George Fox, she elected to transfer to Saint Martin’s and was in Lacey that fall.
Jenkins knows her injury might have been prevented had she worn a helmet with an attached facemask. Hollen said about half her players – now and in 2011 – elect to wear helmets with facemasks. She remembers Jenkins debating whether to wear one; she chose not to.
At Saint Martin’s, all batters – including Jenkins – wear batting helmets with facemasks, a decision coach Rick Noren said he leaves up to his players.
Noren has coached college softball for more than 20 years and has seen two instances where players have taken line drives to the face. While he doesn’t mandate facemasks for infielders and pitchers on defense or on batting helmets, he’s an advocate of them if they improve self-assurance.
“It’s one of those tools that if it helps the player feel comfortable and confident, they should wear it,” he said.
FINDING HER NICHE
With power, speed and a strong throwing arm, Jenkins has been a natural fit in center field. Her 35 RBIs heading into Thursday’s home doubleheader against Northwest Nazarene already surpassed last year’s mark of 32, when she hit .294 over 57 games. Already this spring, she’s on pace for career highs in several categories, including batting average, hits, RBIs, and runs
“I’m a player that does better when I’m having fun and being loose,” Jenkins said. “I just have to trust the skills I’ve been taught.”
Noren credits her successful season to a carry-over from last year’s NCAA regional, where Jenkins blasted four home runs – including what Noren described as “the longest home run I’ve seen at any level” – as well as new mental approach.
“She’s found that in the last several weeks,” Noren said.Meg Wochnick: 360-754-5473 firstname.lastname@example.org theolympian.com/southsoundsports