May 17, 2000
Flying back on the red eye from a road trip to California, Notre Dame softball pitcher Jennifer Sharron woke up from her nap to find her ankle swollen to the size of an orange. Rather than shriek in horror or call for an athletic trainer, Sharron, a three-time BIG EAST Pitcher of the Year, laughed hardily as if it was nothing new.
Getting up from her seat as the plane finally landed a few hours before midnight, Sharron walked down the aisle and through the airport terminal to baggage claim, never once complaining. Laughing maybe, but not complaining.
Sharron’s attitude toward her ankle might well explain her fearlessness in the pitching circle. Over the past three seasons, the program’s first-ever southpaw pitcher has used that attitude in some of the team’s toughest games, compiling a career record of 60-24, including a 25-6 mark in 2000 heading into this week’s NCAA regionals.
“The last two years, she has been in the toughest pressure games coming down the stretch, so that experience will be invaluable,” said Irish head coach Liz Miller about her team’s upcoming postseason games.
Already this season, Sharron has logged a school-record 25 wins and became only the second pitcher in Notre Dame history to record back-to-back 20-win seasons and tally two, 20-win seasons in her career. The red-haired junior also is close to setting school-record marks in three other categories, including games started (30), complete games (25) and innings pitched (212.0).
As a team captain, Sharron has led Notre Dame, which has no senior class and three freshmen starters in the infield, to a 46-12 record, its best in the program’s 12-year history. The Irish will enter this week’s regionals at Michigan with a #17 national ranking, tying the highest in team history.
“I think we’ve really put something together that other teams in the past have lacked,” Sharron said about the team’s success. “Our freshmen have really stepped up and accepted their roles, while the sophomores have done a great job with a year of experience. Coupled with the juniors and the coaches, the combination has made a great team. I just really can’t say enough about the direction the program is going in.”
Even though the team has hit new heights this season, Sharron has been the same standout pitcher over the past three seasons for the Irish as she was at Thousand Oaks High School (Calif.) where she threw seven perfect games, 10 no-hitters and logged 715 strikeouts.
As a freshman at Notre Dame, she went 15-8 overall and became the first Notre Dame pitcher and first freshman to ever win the BIG EAST Pitcher of the Year award. A year later, she earned the same award, going 20-10 overall and helping the team to an NCAA tournament appearance.
The fact that Sharron has become a better pitcher over the years can almost be proven by her strikeout out count alone, which currently stands at 234, almost equaling her previous two-year career total.
“The area where she has gotten better and better is her maturity,” said Deanna Gumpf, the team’s pitching coach. “I think that has helped her become a better pitcher, because she’s becoming smarter than the batters and not just better.”
The recipe of success for Sharron may go beyond her dominant rise balls and almost unhittable change-up to what can only be described as an intimidating drive and competitiveness that causes even the best hitters to think twice.
“I focus on beating each hitter,” Sharron said about her mindset in the circle. “I try to win each pitch and each batter instead of looking at all seven innings and saying that I need to shut this team down the entire game.
“It’s not a cocky approach but more of a confident feeling that I’m going to keep the other team from doing what they want to do.”
Sharron’s competitiveness can easily be demonstrated in three instances this season alone. In a game against Providence in early April, she squared around to bunt and ended up getting hit in the face by a pitch. Two weeks later in a critical conference game with Boston College, another inside pitch at the plate tagged Sharron on the elbow of her pitching arm.
Then in perhaps the worst of the three incidents, Irish third baseman Andria Bledsoe mishandled a ground ball against Indiana State and then tried to hurry a throw over to first base. The ball never made it to first, however, as it struck Sharron square in the back of the head and jumped over the fence into the adjacent soccer field.
While others would have been down for the count, Sharron got up, iced between innings and promptly returned to the pitching circle.
A fearless competitor might just be an understatement.
“Jen is one of the most focused players on our team,” Miller says. “She has a tremendous work ethic and is equally motivated in meeting the goals for this team. That is one of those areas which continually makes her stronger, because she just doesn’t stop. She’s willing to sacrifice everything to achieve the goals for this softball team.”
Although Sharron’s passion has been softball for most of her life, as a film, television and theater major, she finds a direct correlation between being behind the camera and at times being in front of it.
“It’s not so much the camera or the fame that I’m interested in,” Sharron said. “I’m very outgoing and ham it up even when things aren’t going well. But I think it’s more of my competitiveness, leadership and my driven personality that tends to also be traits of a person who is interested in the film industry.”
No film at Notre Dame would have been complete for Sharron without the addition of her sister, Jessica, who is a freshman pitcher on this year’s team.
“Being able to play Division I softball with your sister, you can’t ask for anything more special,” Jennifer Sharron said. “College is such a neat experience as it is, and even if we weren’t playing softball together, it would still be something that I will remember forever.”