Today I had the chance to speak with head coach of Winona State softball Greg Jones ahead of the team’s Central Regional opener against Emporia State. We touched on several topics, among which include the team’s recent NSIC tournament walk-off win, Jordyn Kleman’s advent to the program and her growth in college, as well as how Jones has been able to not just compile the most wins in WSU softball history, but also field 86 All-Academic athletes despite the trials and tribulations of a modern college sports season. Here now is part of our conversation from this morning:
Adam: Let’s talk first about that sixth NSIC Tournament title under your reign that you captured recently, the McKenna Larsen walk-off grand slam game. In your rankings, where does that victory go among the conference tournament titles you’ve captured while at Winona State?
Coach Jones: If we’re talking the conference tournament titles, it’s probably tied for number 1, it’s number one so far in terms of excitement. 2013, or 2014 I guess it was, we came all the way back through the losers bracket, that one ranks up there pretty high, too because of who we had to beat and how many games we had to win in one day to do it. But you can’t beat that walk-off grand slam for excitement.
A: They actually have the video of the home run on social media showing it in slow motion. That sort of adds a whole other element to it, too.
J: Yeah! I’ve seen three angles of it and I’m not sure which one I like the most, because I love them all so much.
A: So talking a bit more about McKenna now, she’s put another spectacular year together…When the senior came to your program, was it evident from the get-go that she would have the success that she’s had?
J: Well it was interesting because she’s a two-sport star, a two-sport All-American (softball and volleyball)…she was dynamic right out of the box for us on the softball field…but I thought as well as she was going in volleyball and softball, I didn’t know if she could do both for four years, and as a setter for volleyball and pitcher for softball I didn’t know that she could have success because of missing all the offseason time our pitchers have to put in. My thought process was if she was willing to give up one of those sports, she’d probably become an All-American. Well, despite all of us, she became an All-American in BOTH sports without giving anything up! That’s a pretty special athlete indeed.
A: It really is…Looking ahead to the future, right behind McKenna you have another pitching standout in Jordyn Kleman, the La Crosse native. 19-1with a no-hitter and perfect game she threw against Moorhead State. It would seem, coach, that she’s primed to follow in McKenna’s footsteps, what sets Jordyn apart from her contemporaries?
J: Jordyn is a special type of pitcher, she came in, obviously being Freshman of the Year in this league as a pitcher, doing what she did as a pitcher as a freshman in our league was truly something special. Jordyn’s got the ability to get people out in a lot of different ways. She’s got a dynamic rise-ball, she’s now able to change speeds, change location, and really mix her pitches well. She’s been a strikeout pitcher, and was in high school, too. And her ability to miss bats and pitch out of jams is really impressive.
A: And she began of course paving her way pitching those strikeouts in high school for La Crosse Logan. Was there a moment maybe that you saw during her high school career that made you say: “I want HER for the Warrior program?”
J: The first time I saw her pitch was against Galesville-Ettrick Trempeleau; we got there late for the game, it was actually picture-day for us and then we scrambled to get over there and see her play. And I truly believe she struck out every batter she faced that day! It was kind from that point on that I realized that ‘okay, this kid is a difference maker if we can get her to come here to Winona State’, and she truly has been.
A: And she’s got a sister (Marissa) coming up through the program right now, you might want to keep an eye out for that one, too!
J: Yes! Exactly right, absolutely!
A: Now coach, you may have noticed, winter really got a grip on the area this year, and it’s creating a lot of compressed schedules for student-athletes. At the college level, if you’ve never done it before, finding that balance between classroom and athletics is extremely difficult. You’ve coached 86 NSIC All-Academic athletes over your career, so what do you think has worked best for your team and you as a coach?
J: Well first of all, credit goes to the kids. I don’t think our kids get enough credit for what they have to endure at this level. The amount of class-time missed especially…we had a stretch of games where we had a 35-game road trip to start the season, and we had a stretch for an entire month where we didn’t play one game when the schedule said we were going to or WHERE we said we were going to. And I just don’t think there’s another sport that has to endure it like baseball and softball, and you’re doing it in the spring of the year when the school year is winding down; exam week gets consolidated because of the conference tournament, they had to jam all of their finals into two days…so it really comes down to the kids and how hard they’re willing to work at their academics. That’s part of the glory of Division 2, they get to be students as well as great athletes. We have people that really work hard with them. Our professors are great, they’re very understanding, and all of our kids come in with the mindset that they’re here to get their degree…it’s really a tip of the cap to the parents that raised them and the kids that have the drive in the classroom.
#5 Winona State faces eight-seed Emporia State tomorrow afternoon starting at 1pm from Maynard R. Johnson Field.
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