Aug. 5, 2015
By Brad Muller | More Features
Jessica Elliott brings an impressive pitching resume to the South Carolina softball program, but the junior college transfer from Chipola College in Florida still wants to prove herself. Making adjustments is what drives her to succeed.
“I just want to get better every time I go out there,” Elliott said. “There is no such thing as being the best. There’s always something you can do better. One of the main personal goals after my freshman year was to have better command of my pitches, and I think I did that.”
Elliott turned down offers after her freshman year at Chipola when she won 20 games and ranked third nationally in strikeouts. One of the primary reasons she stayed was because she felt like there was unfinished business, not only with personal goals, but with team goals. That business was taken care of as she helped the Lady Indians win the national championship while also being named the NJCAA Division I Pitcher of the Year. She posted a 21-5 record last year with a 0.80 earned run average and 229 strikeouts in 174.2 innings of work. She tossed a complete game in the title game and was named the Most Valuable Player of the national tournament.
“I’ll remember winning the national championship for the rest of my life,” Elliott said. “We actually had to play the same team (Northeastern Oklahoma A&M) in the semifinals. I had to make adjustments between the two games. In the first game, I was mostly staying inside against every batter. For the championship game, they knew that’s what I would do, so I had to work outside. I was pretty nervous in the semifinal game, but I felt more ‘sound’ in my pitching in the championship game. My approach and command just felt right, and that’s what every athlete lives for.”
Making adjustments is nothing new for Elliott. As the youngest of four daughters, she developed a special relationship with her father, Brad, who helped develop her game.
“My dad has been my pitching coach for the most part,” Elliott said. “He taught me. I used to be a catcher, and I would catch one of my sisters during pitching lessons. Eventually I started practicing on the side, and my dad took note of that and started working with me. I’m sort of a ‘daddy’s girl’ and a ‘mama’s girl’ because I’m the youngest and get all of the attention. My mom and I get along with everything, but my dad has really been my mentor with softball and has taught me everything I know. My family has been so supportive with everything.”
Growing up in Orlando with her mother, Sheryl, working for Disney Cruise Line, the family enjoyed a lot of time in the Magic Kingdom and various other Disney attractions.
“It could be close to 100 trips there,” Elliott said. “We went quite a few times. Disney is always changing, so that keeps it from getting boring. It probably doesn’t mean the same thing to me as it does to others who have never been there or only been there a few times.”
I’m just hoping I can help the team take the next step. I want to make a difference.
Elliott earned the nickname “Jake” while in pre-K, thanks in part to some toddlers who had trouble saying “Jessica,” and that name seemed to follow her.
“If it wasn’t for my dad, that nickname probably wouldn’t have stuck,” Elliott said. “We just always spend a lot of time together. I like it because it’s unique, but sometimes it gets tiresome trying to explain it.”
“I love nicknames,” South Carolina head coach Beverly Smith laughed. “If I can grab ahold of a nickname, I’m going to use it. I love it.”
Elliott would begin to make a name for herself in high school and travel ball, although her high school playing career required a lot of adjustments as well.
“We had a different softball coach at my school each year I was there,” Elliott said. “I went to one day of tryouts my first year and decided not to go back.”
She came back her second year and broke several school pitching records. She missed most of her junior year after bilateral bunionectomy surgery was performed to correct bone growths on her feet, and that same year she tore the medial collateral ligament in her knee. She played her senior year and chose to go the junior college route to begin the next stage of her academic and athletics career.
“I was recruited coming out of high school by some big schools, but nothing seemed to stick with me,” Elliott said. “It was a hard decision, so I thought junior college was the best route for me at the time. After those two years, I wouldn’t have traded it for anything. I was very grateful. I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to come here if I didn’t do that.”
Continued hard work in junior college led to opportunities to play at the highest level, and with the Gamecocks graduating fifth year senior Julie Sarratt last spring, Elliott is confident, yet respectful, in knowing there was an opportunity to make a difference at South Carolina.
“College recruiting is like a business deal,” Elliott said. “On the field, we are recruited to do a certain job, and I wanted to go to a place where there was a need for me to do the job. In getting to know the coaches here, I really liked them a lot.”
Elliott knows she will have to continue to adjust as she transitions to playing in the Southeastern Conference, and is looking forward creating a dynamic force in the circle alongside South Carolina’s staff, including returning junior pitcher Nickie Blue, who led the Gamecocks in wins (20), ERA (1.86) and strikeouts (165) last spring.
“I can’t set goals based on what I did at Chipola because this will be completely different,” Elliott said. “I really want to gel with Nickie Blue a lot. That’s going to be very important for our team’s success. Whether it is coming in before Nickie or coming in after her, I hope we can really complement each other.”
“She has a dominant rise ball,” Smith said. “She throws the ball hard and has the ability to jam hitters up. She had a great season last year. I think all of our staff complements each other. Jessica is different than Nickie, because she is going to pitch up a lot more, whereas Nickie is going to be down with her pitches. Then you have (sophomore) Hayley Copeland come in, who has a lot of spin on the ball. So any time I make a pitching change, the hitters will be getting a totally different look.”
With the Gamecocks reaching the NCAA Tournament after each of the last three seasons, Elliott hopes her experience will help the program reach new heights.
“I’m just hoping I can help the team take the next step,” Elliott said. “I want to make a difference.”
“When you look at our weaknesses from the last few years, we needed a little more depth on the mound,” Smith said. “Having ‘Jake’ here has added a key piece to the puzzle.”
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