By PATRICK SLACK
The Little Falls softball team sorely missed Jamie Jenks’ presence in the lineup last season.
Opposing pitchers, on the other hand, did not.
A year ago, Jenks was coming off a freshman season in which she jumped onto the scene in her first year playing the sport, compiling a .375 batting average.
But early last winter, Jenks’ knee buckled under her while attempting to make a jump stop playing basketball, an injury that wiped out her entire softball season.
With a little experience to complement a wealth of talent, Jenks and the Flyers were forced to eagerly await what she could do for an encore.
Looking to shake off some of the rust from the long layoff, she took part in the St. Cloud winter dome league against some of the top players from the area.
“I took a whooping,” Jenks said. “I popped out nearly every time up. I was the worst one on the team.”
Still honing her swing and timing early in the season, Jenks started the year just 1-for-6 as the Flyers dropped their first two games in vastly different yet equally upsetting fashion, giving up a two-run lead in the seventh to Pierz and falling 20-0 to Albany.
What followed after that, though, was what Little Falls anticipated and much more.
“The first couple of games people didn’t know how good she was,” Hinnenkamp said.
It didn’t take them long to find out.
Jenks began to blend a tremendous array of speed and power to overwhelm opponents, rocketing the ball across the field and sparking what would turn out to be one of the best individual and team seasons in school history.
The Flyers cruised to an 11-1 win in their first ever Granite Ridge Conference (GRC) game against Foley, April 10, led by Jenks with a double, triple, two runs and four RBIs.
Still, it was the game that followed a week later that changed the course of the season for Jenks and the Flyers.
Trailing 7-2 against Princeton, Little Falls was in jeopardy of experiencing an early setback in the GRC and dropping to 1-3.
But after missing Jenks and fellow All-Area team member senior Alayna Kabanuk a year ago, the Flyers demonstrated the strength and depth of their lineup.
Little Falls chipped away at the Tigers’ lead with runs in the fourth, fifth and sixth to cut the lead to 7-5, then two more in the seventh to tie the game and force extra innings.
Batting in the bottom of the eighth, Jenks found herself up in a key spot.
“I didn’t feel any pressure (in close situations),” Jenks said. “Just go up and get a hit. Everyone on the team wanted to win just like me.”
“If the bases were loaded I would look (on deck) at Alayna and say, ‘A base hit is all I need, right?’ I just had to remember to keep it simple,” Jenks said.
“Just make solid contact,” Little Falls head coach Ron Hinnenkamp said.
She came through to ignite the game-winning rally, smacking a one-out double before stealing third and coming in to score on a walk-off single by senior Brichelle Brummer.
“That did a lot for the team, saying, ‘Hey, we can do this,’” Hinnenkamp said. “The attitude in the dugout was that we were going to get it done. A lot of teams say that, but we really believed it.”
“This year we had a great lineup with a lot of people that stepped up,” he said. “It was great to have a lineup that at any given time, anyone might get the big hit. If someone made a mistake, someone was there to pick them up.”
“If one person sparked it, everyone else would go,” Jenks said.
Little Falls took off from there, rattling off wins in its next five conference games to improve to 7-0 in the GRC.
During that stretch, Jenks had at least two hits and two RBIs in each contest, collecting 19 hits, including 10 for extra bases, in 28 at bats.
The Flyers dropped a pair in the middle of the season to Milaca, but rebounded to gain a share of the GRC championship with Mora.
That gave Little Falls the third seed in the Sub-Section 6AA East tournament and a rematch with Pierz in the first round.
Any rust from the beginning of the season was a distant memory at that point.
The Pioneers tried to work around Jenks when they could, walking her intentionally twice.
When base runners took away that option, Jenks made Pierz pay, blasting an RBI double in the first and a grand slam in the second to start a deep postseason run.
The Flyers fell behind early in their next game against Paynesville Area, but Jenks led the rally with three hits, a homer, five RBIs and three runs to advance to the sub-section finals and clinch a spot in the section tournament.
Little Falls closed the gap with Albany but fell 6-1 to drop into consolation action.
Jenks went 6-for-7 in the next two games to help the Flyers earn another shot at Albany in the section finals.
She added two final hits in the game, but the reigning section champion Huskies held off Little Falls a third time on their way to a repeat title and a sixth-place finish at state.
Jenks finished the year with a .633 batting average, the first player in school history to even surpass .500.
She also had 16 doubles, two triples and six home runs, with 38 runs and 46 RBIs aided by hitting between All-Area senior catcher Britian Conley and Kabanuk.
With Conley getting on base at a .506 clip and Kabanuk driving the ball behind her, opponents had little choice but to pitch to Jenks and hope for the best.
Most teams would play her deep and try to take away the potential for extra bases, but with her speed that wasn’t much of an option.
“Not a lot of teams would try to pitch around her,” Hinnenkamp said. “If you did there was a good chance she’d be on second (with a steal),” Hinnenkamp said.
Playing shallow resulted in doubles and triples being hit over outfielders’ heads.
Of course, no defensive alignment stood a chance against her home run power.
For all of her offensive prowess, Jenks stood out even more for the elite defensive play she brought to center field with her speed and quickness, Hinnenkamp said.
“Speed and quickness aren’t the same thing,” he said. “Speed is being able to get here to there. Quickness is reacting to the ball and tracking the flight. Jamie does both, comes in and goes back.”
That also benefits the left and right fielders, who are able to play closer to the lines and prevent more singles and extra-base hits.
Additionally, she has the ability to charge in on balls and go back exceptionally well, whereas many outfielders are fortunate to excel at one.
Add it up, and the all-around talent provided by Jenks was a vital key to the team’s success.
“I could tell this season was going to be a good one,” Jenks said. “We all work well together.”
After last season, “I knew I had to work hard and not take anything for granted and not complain,” she said.
“You can have the skills, but you have to work hard,” Hinnenkamp said. “The great thing about Jamie is she has the skills and she works. Leadership by example is a great thing.”
MC Record’s Player of the Year, game-by-game
AprilPierz: 1-4, RBI, 2-R
Foley: 2-3, 2B, 3B, 4-RBI, 2-R, BB
Princeton: 2-4, 2B, HR, 3-RBI, 2-R
St. Cloud Cathedral: 3-4, 2-2B, 5-RBI, 3-R
Zimmerman: 3-4, 2-RBI
Melrose Area: 3-4, 2B, 2-R
Mora: 4-5, 2-2B, 2-RBI, R
Becker: 2-3, R, BB
Swanville: 2-3, 2B, HR, 2-RBI, 2-R
Foley: 3-4, 2B, 3-RBI, 2-R
Princeton: 2-4, 2B, 3-RBI, 2-R
Isle: 3-4, 2B, 3B, HR, 2-RBI, 2-R
Milaca: 4-4, 3-2B, 2-RBI, R
Milaca: 2-4, RBI, R
St. Cloud Cathedral: 3-3, RBI, 2-R
Sauk Centre: 0-2
Mora: 2-3, 2-RBI, 2-R
Sub-Section 6AA East playoffs
Pierz: 2-2, 2B, HR, 5-RBI, 4-R, 2-BB
Paynesville Area: 3-4, HR, 5-RBI, 3-R
Section 6AA playoffs
Ottertail Central: 2-3, 2-R
Staples-Motley: 4-4, 3-RBI, 2-R
At bats: 90
Home runs: 6
Total Bases: 95
Bases on balls: 6
Sacrifice flies: 1
Batting average: .633
On-base percentage: .650
Slugging percentage: 1.056
On-base plus slugging (OPS): 1.706