Jena Rhoads isn’t sugar-coating the Northern Kentucky University softball team’s trip to fourth-ranked Tennessee Friday in the NCAA Division I Softball Championship tournament.
“It’s definitely intimidating playing the fourth-ranked team in the country,” said Rhoads, a 2022 Wilmington High School graduate and starting outfielder on the Norse squad.
NKU (23-3o) will play at Tennessee’s home field 5:30 p.m. Friday in the opening round of the tournament. The Volunteers are 44-8 on the year.
The UT stadium will be rocking for sure but there is more than atmosphere that makes the Volunteers a tough matchup. Kiki Milloy leads the nation with 24 home runs. Ashley Rogers – the third overall pick in the WPF draft – has a 16-1 record and a 0.70 ERA. She has 160 strikeouts in 119 1/3 innings. Both are USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year finalists.
“We just need to go into this game like any other,” said Rhoads. “We have to stay relaxed, not let the environment take over our emotions. If we play like we know we can, we can beat anyone we face.
“This time of the year is different because we never know when our next game could be our last. During the preseason, we knew we still had a lot of games ahead of us. But now, our season is on the line. I know this team and I know we are capable of beating anyone.”
Rhoads hit .592 her senior year at WHS with 18 stolen bases. She hit .571 for her three-year varsity career with just eight strikeouts in 182 at-bats. She drove in 61 runs in 59 games while scoring 71 times.
In this her first season with NKU, Rhoads is hitting .257. She’s started 48 of 53 games. After beginning the season 5-for-29 (.172) at the plate, Rhoads has 31 hits in her last 111 at-bats (.279).
She has a season-high three hits against Detroit Mercy and drove in four runs against the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay on March 16.
Reaching the NCAA tournament is a first in program history for the Norse. On April 12, it seemed like an impossibility. NKU lost 7-3 to IUPUI and fell to 10-26 on the year. Making the Horizon League tournament seemed like a stretch at that point in the season.
“After we went through that rough stretch of losing games, we realized what was on the line,” Rhoads said. “I think once we realized we had a chance of not making it, we stepped it up and made sure to secure our spot. Making the tournament was a huge motivation to all of us. We went from being unsure if we were going to make it to being Horizon League champions.”
Making the NCAA tournament is huge, especially for a program that hasn’t had a winning season since 2018’s 24-22 mark. That team, though, was swept out of the Horizon League tournament in two games. Rhoads, like NKU, hadn’t been part of a winning team in a number of years and making the jump to the top college level left her unsure how things would turn out.
”Coming in as a freshman, I didn’t really know what to expect,” she said. “I was just so excited to be a part of this team and program. I was so stoked when one of my teammates came up to me before our first game and told me my name was on the lineup (card). I’ll never forget that feeling. I was so excited that I was given the opportunity to compete.”
She more than competed. Rhoads made the Horizon League all-freshman team and was second-team all-conference.
“I think my freshman season (has gone) extremely well,” she said. “However, I am my own toughest critic, so I know there is always going to be things that I need to work on. I still have three more years at NKU to keep improving and making adjustments.”
Rhoads said the game is much faster at the college level than it was in high school, so adjustments had to come quickly, whether it was in the field or at the plate.
”It’s such a fast paced game and environment, which is what makes it so fun,” she said.
Regardless of the outcome Friday, Rhoads knows next season will be a big one.
”I need to work on stepping into a leadership position,” said Rhoads, daughter of Bryan and Ashley Rhoads. “I know I have what it takes to motivate my team. I just need to find my voice and not be afraid to speak up. When you’re a freshman, it’s easy to let upperclassmen take the reins. I look up to all of my teammates because of their ability to lead and I want to be able to do the same.”
Being a leader is as much mental as it is physical.
”You have to be so mentally tough because this is a game of failure,” she said. “My teammates and coaches have taught me how to move on and forget about my mistakes. I’ve gained so much confidence in my abilities because of my teammates and coaches. They believe in me and so I want to believe in myself as much as they do.”
Reach Mark Huber at 937-556-5765, via email [email protected] or on Twitter @wnjsports