Catcher Ashley Jennings was 22 games into her return from dual hip surgeries when COVID-19 cut the season short. After spending a year in recovery and away from competition, Hoos Life caught up with Jennings to talk leadership, perspective and the future for a young softball team.
Q: You spent a lot of time working back from an injury, taking a redshirt as a sophomore. What was that experience like?
Jennings: My sophomore year was definitely challenging for me. The fall was going really well and I was seeing some progress on the field, so having the hip surgeries was a big setback. Although, the timing actually worked out and I didn’t have to rush with my recovery process. I typically spent 2-3 hours a day in the training room after my second surgery, so I missed out on some practices, games, and team meetings in the spring, which was such a different experience to be away from my team. Rather than staying diligent with my softball skills, I was diligently working on how to get my body healthy again, which was never something I had to worry as much about in the past. I learned so much about perspective and gratitude through this experience and I am thankful for the people that were a part of that journey with me especially our athletic trainer, Kelly Martin.
Q: How do you feel like you may have grown from that year in recovery?
Jennings: I gained a tremendous amount of perspective throughout this experience. Being unable to play allowed me to see the game from a completely different perspective. Throughout my recovery, I was able to become a better student of the game. I learned a lot when watching at practices and games, noticing certain things I would not usually pick up on. Since I wasn’t able to play the game, I talked about the game. Talking through situations, pitch calls, and base calls with the coaches and other catchers, and developing my game IQ was definitely something I saw translate into this past year once I was cleared. This adversity allowed me to grow in important aspects of the game that I didn’t usually commit time to. I realized how much we take the game for granted once it was taken away from me.
Q: Having just returned from a season away from the field, did that change the impact of the shutdown at all for you?
Jennings: I think having a year away from the field made the shutdown easier to handle. Obviously, the season ending the way it did was heartbreaking but the perspective I gained last year made it somewhat easier to handle. Even though it was a different situation, I knew what it was like to be away from the game. I experienced a form of being away from my team and missing out on time with my teammates, coaches and the game. Knowing that I have a redshirt fifth year and possible sixth year to continue playing has definitely made this easier for me to handle.
Q: What have you been doing the past few months?
Jennings: While finishing the semester at home with my family, the team was able to stay connected through Zoom meetings. We created groups to do workouts together on Zoom as a way to stay connected and hold each other accountable. After classes finished up, it was nice to be able to relax and do things that I don’t normally have time for, but I got bored quickly. I have been working out with my dad and making my sister do cardio with me. I love listening to music, so I enjoy finding new music and making new playlists. I don’t usually read for fun so that is one of my goals for the summer. I read Where the Crawdads Sing after my classes ended which I definitely recommend. I’m not sure what to do with all the free time so naturally I binge watched Outer Banks and Ozark on Netflix and I recently started Empire on Hulu.
Q: Where do you feel like your game was at personally when the season ended, especially in terms of shaking off any rust from a year away from live ball?
Jennings: Since my injury, I have had to modify some of the deep squatting with catching so it has taken some time to understand my body and its limits. I started practicing more at first base at the beginning of the spring, so I was feeling the most confident there right when the season ended. My body had just gotten back into game shape and the soreness was lessening so I was feeling good on the field when the season ended. I was seeing progress and feeling more confident on the field around the time of ACC games.
Q: You’ve become one of the leaders on this team. How are you and others making sure everyone stays engaged with softball and the team?
Jennings: We have been able to stay connected throughout the pandemic which has been great. Since we are still able to have team meetings, the team has been working on our soft skills. We have been breaking down and discussing the standards and goals of our program. We have been reaching out to the incoming first years and getting to know them better. Spending the time now to develop those relationships with our teammates will allow us to be a step ahead when we get back in the swing of things in the fall. We have leadership groups that have allowed us to stay connected and engaged with one another through small discussions. Additionally, we have been doing workouts together through Zoom. We have done some hangout/study Zoom calls just as a way to stay engaged and maintain relationships with each other. I have also been staying in touch with my teammates as much as possible through Facetime and texting.
Q: It’s a young team and perhaps an even younger pitching staff. As a catcher, where do you feel like this group was/is and how excited for the future are you with this pitching staff?
Jennings: The bullpen is young, but this group is gritty. It was exciting to see how much the bullpen would progress each week this Spring. Seeing our first years Mackenzie, Molly and Morgan come in and put their heads down and get better every day, really pushed Aly, Clare and Riley to be their best as well. I am so excited for Mikayla and Madi to join the pitching staff next year. We have never had such high numbers on staff so I can’t wait to see how much they push each other. We will have a big staff and I am excited to see how we can create some great match ups with all the different arms that we have.
Q: As a veteran who has seen a lot of ACC softball, where is this team heading into 2021?
Jennings: I am so excited for Team 42. With this time to grow our game in different areas, those who have been silently working will shine when we get back to Grounds. This is the perfect time to grow and commit time to aspects of our game that we don’t usually get to. With Campaign 515, our goal is to be competing for the ACC Championship on May 15, 2021. We are setting the standard to be developing ourselves now and holding each other to that standard so that we can be competing on May 15.
Q: Have you picked up any new hobbies or interests during the past two months at home?
Jennings: I have been doing puzzles, reading and cardio since I’ve been home. My dad and I built a batting cage in my backyard, so I enjoyed getting outside and helping him put that together.
My sister Haley and I have been on the new trend of tie dyeing and bleaching clothes. I’m no chef like Kate, but I have been cooking dinner and breakfast. I like to look up new recipes on Pinterest and Instagram to try.
Q: What’s it like living with the de facto leader of the #MomSquad?
Jennings: If you ever wonder who the lady is who comments on every UVA softball twitter post, that would be my mom and if you’ve ever had an encounter with her you know how awesome she is. She is a super fan for UVA athletics. She knows about the latest news well before I do and she is usually the one keeping me in the loop. I have loved being home more and spending time with my mom, dad and sister during these past few months that I am usually in Charlottesville. She is known as the mom who gives the best hugs, so I love being home and getting those hugs more. Living with her is probably what you would expect, always exciting and fun to be around.
Q: What do you miss most about Grounds or Charlottesville?
Jennings: I miss seeing the team every day. Even though we just moved in, I miss Palmer Park and seeing everyone in there every day. I miss being on Grounds and walking to class past the Lawn and Rotunda. I miss walking to The Corner with my friends for a quick coffee before class. I miss small talk with my teammates and coaches. The people make the place and I definitely miss the people the most.