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May 25, 2013

All-American success

Former Lady Bruin Jessica Brown has big year

Jessica Brown doesn’t pay much attention to statistics.

Maybe she should, because the Northwest Whitfield High School graduate’s junior softball season at Rhodes College, a NCAA Division III school in Memphis, Tenn., was filled with good numbers.

They were so good they earned her a spot on the National Fastpitch Coaches Association’s All-American Team.

Brown was honored at an awards banquet on May 16 in Eau Claire, Wis. Earlier this season, she became the third player in the history of softball at Rhodes College to be voted to the All-Atlantic Region Team’s first team, but the All-American honor was obviously even bigger. She is the first player in Lynx history to become an All-American, an honor for which only the 120 players on the National Fastpitch Coaches Association All-Region first teams are eligible.

Brown was one of 15 players nationwide selected to the three All-American squads, but she said it wasn’t much of a goal prior to earning the honor.

“One of our assistant coaches had joked with me about it, but that’s about it,” Brown said. “It was definitely an honor. I got to go to the All-American banquet at the national championship last week. To go to the banquet and be with other All-Americans and hear about their season was an amazing thing.”

Brown, a 2010 Northwest graduate, played first base for the 2009 Lady Bruins team that finished third in the Class 4A state tournament. She batted .230 with 11 RBIs, seven runs and six extra-base hits that season. But she was spotted by Rhodes’ coach at the time, David Hicks, while playing for her travel team, the Tennessee Raiders, in a tournament at Chattanooga’s Warner Park during the summer between her junior and senior year at Northwest.

Brown joined the Lynx as they were setting new standards for the team. In 2009, two springs before she arrived, Rhodes won a program-record 29 games. As a freshman, Brown played catcher and became the Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference’s Offensive Player of the Week for April 11-17 in 2011 after hitting .750 with three home runs, 11 RBIs and nine runs scored. All three home runs came in one game, which set a school and conference record. Brown led the team in home runs-per-at-bat that season.

“My first impression of Jess was she had incredible power,” said coach Luke Wagner, who took over the program prior to Brown’s sophomore season.

“She says there wasn’t much of a change in her swing — there wasn’t a whole lot changed — but she wasn’t refined. She had some great at-bats and others that she didn’t get the best swing in. ... After the fall season, I sat down and went over some expectations. When I talked to Jess, I told her this. She had incredible potential. After hearing it, she kind of just took it from there and made the most of her talents.”

Brown’s natural position is catcher, the role she played her first three years at Northwest and her freshman season at Rhodes. She was a designated hitter this season and plans to return to Rhodes next fall for her senior year.

But her junior year was a remarkable one.

Brown, an environmental sciences major with above a 3.5 grade-point average, set Rhodes’ single-season home run (11) and slugging percentage (.779) records this year. She hit her record-breaking 11th homer last month in the Lynx’s 3-2 win over Birmingham-Southern.

“I didn’t know about it until I tied the record,” Brown said of the home run mark. “The coach my freshman year (Hicks) contacted me. Then the person who held the record before tied it. Then everyone gave me a hard time about it. I was well aware and trying not to think about it.

“I knew I was hitting well but basically refused to look at stats. It’s just a personal thing I guess. I know how I feel after a game. For me, if I go 2-for-3 but have two dinky hits or bloopers over the shortstop, I feel I didn’t hit well. But if I had three shots right to someone in the outfield, I’d feel better about that.”

She also led the team in doubles (13) and had the highest batting average (.426) among players with at least 100 at-bats on the team; that number was second best in the conference. Her on-base percentage (.451) was second for those on the squad with at least 100 at-bats, and her RBI total (31) ranked second behind Mak-enzie Martin’s 37.

“Jess will be returning next season for her second season as a captain,” Wagner said. “From a maturity and developmental standpoint, you couldn’t ask for more from Jess. Not just on the field but outside and dealing with people, with frustrations in class. ... For her to deal with that and have this type of season is just incredible. It really is.”

The Lynx finished this season 25-15 overall and 17-6 in conference play but lost the SSA tournament championship to Birmingham-Southern and missed a chance to reach an NCAA Regional. Most conferences award automatic bids to their champions and at-large bids to others, but because the SAA is a new conference in its second season of competition it doesn’t receive an automatic bid.

“The program has never won a conference championship or gone to NCAA Regionals,” Brown said.

For Brown, that makes it clear what her senior season goals will be.

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