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May 12, 2009

There's no catching the "Rhodesrunner"

By: Matt Kovatch

Jenna Rhodes

The running joke around Virginia Tech softball is that Jenna Rhodes, who grew up on a chicken farm in Broadway Va., got to be so fast because she trained by chasing chickens around like the Italian Stallion did in Rocky II.

While the graduating senior admits that she did have to run down a few sheep in her day to get them ready for shearing, she said that the most involvement she ever had with the chickens was to clean their excrement-covered eggs.

While Rhodes gave up her egg washing a long time ago, she has continued to clean up in different fashion, instead washing away some pretty significant Hokie records.

When the fifth-place Hokies (27-27, 8-10 ACC) headed into the conference tournament on May 8, Rhodes had already obliterated some of Virginia Tech’s single-season bests. Her 49 stolen bases had broken her own record of 41 from a year ago, and her 89 hits surpassed the previous mark of 76 set in 2005.

But the most eye-popping number of the three was her unfathomably high batting average of .478, a figure that ranked fourth in the country at press time and a number that was 102 points higher than Tech’s previous highest clip of .376.

“She’s been phenomenal,” Hokie head coach Scot Thomas said of Rhodes. “Her bat control has been as good as I could ever expect or hope for it to be. She’s been a lot smarter and she’s so fast that if that ball bounces twice, she’s safe.

“As far as stolen bases go, she’s got the God-given ability of speed, and she’s worked on the timing of it all and learned how to slide correctly. She’s raised her game to totally different level.”

Rhodes’ performance this year has not only helped the Hokies in their first season without national pitcher of the year Angela Tincher – “We were in the comfort zone having Angela,” Rhodes said. “We knew we only had to score one or two runs to win, so we’ve really had to step it up this year.” – but it’s also placed her atop Tech’s career list in both offensive categories. At the end of the regular season, Rhodes had built up a .385 career batting average, which, unless the Hokies go deep into the postseason with Rhodes in a prolonged slump, would break Michelle Meadows’ career mark of .347 set in 2000. Finally Rhodes’ 114 stolen bases exceeded the 113 bags swiped by her older sister, Callie, from 2003-07.

What makes Rhodes’ batting average mark unique is that she’s done it as a slap hitter. For those unfamiliar with softball, a slap hitter essentially makes a living off of swinging bunts, batting from the left side and starting the move to first base as the pitch is on its way. It’s not something that is done once in a while when the coach gives the signal – one is either a slap hitter or isn’t. And the opposition knows it’s coming, often moving the infielders in to try and stop the Hokies’ speedy leadoff hitter.

“It’s usually just a split-second difference between being safe and out with slap hitters,” Rhodes said. “Because the infield is in and if you don’t have the power to get it out of the infield, you’re kind of stuck trying to get it exactly where you need to. I really focused on ball placement in the offseason.”

Slappers rarely get to experience the glorification of swinging for the fences – Rhodes has just six extra-base hits in her career – instead doing all they can to set the table for the power hitters that follow them. It’s a role that Rhodes has played to perfection in her final campaign, and a lot of that success could be indirectly credited to the aforementioned Callie.

The Rhodes sisters: Callie (left) stole a school-record 113 bases in her career (2003-07), but Jenna broke it two years later with her 114th steal on the last day of the regular season.
Callie, who is three years older than Jenna, sort of paved the way for her younger sister, arriving in Blacksburg three seasons before Jenna and morphing into the same type of player whom Jenna would eventually mirror. Thomas and the Tech coaching staff decided to switch Callie from the power hitter that she was in high school into a slap hitter, mostly because of her speed and quickness. Though both Rhodes sisters were invited walk-ons, Thomas had Jenna on his radar and envisioned her in the same role as Callie.

“We had been in conversations with Jim Rhodes [Callie and Jenna’s father], and suggested that he turn Jenna around and have her ready to slap once she got here,” Thomas said.

“Once my dad realized that Jenna and I were both fast and built the same way, and seeing how slapping was my ticket to playing in college, he decided that it kind of fit for her, too,” Callie added.

So Jenna and Jim worked on the new approach at the plate, and Jenna showed up on campus ready to play. The only problem was that Callie still had two years left in a Hokie uniform.

“I feel like it would be kind of hard to play behind your older sibling,” Callie said. “But Jenna is probably the most unselfish player that I’ve ever played with, and she always wanted to do whatever she could for the team.”

So Jenna served primarily as a pinch runner, accumulating just 13 official at-bats over her first two seasons. She was used to being a big fish in a small pond, so all that time on the bench made her question her desire to continue playing.

“Heading into my junior year, I was like, ‘Do I still want to play if all I’m going to be doing is pinch running?’” she said.

And she had a reason to leave. Jenna, a double major in psychology and sociology whose passion is to become a counselor for older children and teenagers, had done missionary work during the previous two summers in Africa (Zambia), sharing the Gospel and helping to break ground on a new hospital. It’s a place that she said she fell in love with, and she seriously contemplated ditching school to do it full time.

“I was ready to move over there after my sophomore year,” Jenna said. “My dad thought I was gone. But I was lucky enough that he paid for me to come to college, so I wasn’t going to squander that. I wanted to come back to get my degree so I had the skills do whatever I wanted to do in that field.”

So Jenna returned to campus and it’s paid off, not only in the form of broken records, but also because she helped the Hokies to the Women’s College World Series last season. She’s also all set to graduate, having gotten more experience for her career path by volunteering at a local crisis hot line in which she fields phone calls from suicidal teens and those crying out for help.

Whether she decides to make the move to Africa (“I’d have to switch from softball to cricket!” she jokes.”) or whether she decides to continue her education in grad school, those surrounding her have no questions about whether she will succeed.

“She’s a great kid and a great character,” Thomas said of Jenna. “She’s got a great set of values and she’s been a joy to be around.”

“It takes a special person to be able to put themselves in situations like she has,” Callie said of her sister. “She’s a very strong Christian and she really has a heart for serving others and putting them above herself. No matter what she does and where she lives, she’s going to have a long-lasting impact on a lot of people.”