- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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All Cheyenne Jenks wants to do is play, whether she's digging a volleyball out of the sand, setting up a spike indoors or ripping a rise ball over the fence. All the Florida Gulf Coast University softball team can do is play, prohibited from participating in the postseason as the school's athletic programs continue their rapid ascent from Division II independent to Division I powerhouse in the Atlantic Sun conference.
For the moment, that makes Jenks and FGCU softball a perfect match -- because the moment is all either has.
Meet the best player and the best team you won't get a chance to see in the NCAA tournament.
The Eagles enter the final weekend in March with a 33-5 record. They are unranked in the ESPN.com/USA Softball Top 25 but have had a home in the Ultimate College Softball poll for a few weeks. And while even its proponents wouldn't describe the Atlantic Sun as an established softball power, Florida Gulf Coast has stepped outside its small-conference home to register eye-catching wins this season against DePaul, BYU, Hawaii, Hofstra, Massachusetts, Mississippi State and Oregon State.
Despite losing the top pitcher from the team that went 48-16 last season, FGCU's first in Division I, the Eagles are preying on even major-conference competition with an offense that's averaging 8.2 runs per game this season. Leading the way is Jenks, a senior third baseman who is hitting .485 with 17 home runs, 55 RBIs and a 1.686 OPS.
"I tell her this all the time, and it's true, I see her at practice every day and I think she can hit every pitch," coach David Deiros said. "She's a see-the-ball, hit-the-ball [hitter]. Her eye-hand coordination is very good. She's very strong. She's able to go ahead and pick up changes of speed and make adjustments. So her natural ability and what she's worked on to become a better hitter are evident."
In a game earlier this season against Hofstra, Jenks struck out three times in a row against Kayleigh Lotti, one of the best mid-major pitchers in the country. By Deiros' count, the slugger took nine swings during her first three at-bats and made contact once, fouling off a solitary pitch. But when she went to the plate with two outs in the seventh inning and the Eagles trailing 2-0, she did what great hitters want to do.
"She went up there with a plan of attack, and she got the same kind of pitch she was swinging and missing at earlier, but she made an adjustment, stayed on it and drove it over the right-center-field fence," Deiros said of the game winner. "And it wasn't even close; it was gone by a mile."
The only thing Deiros said he's really worked on with Jenks is her becoming more of a student of the game, able to routinely make the sorts of adjustments she made against Lotti.
But it's hard to study the intricacies of softball when you're in the middle of a volleyball game.
A standout in volleyball, softball and soccer in high school, Jenks originally signed at Florida State to play softball but left after one semester. Her decision to transfer to Florida Gulf Coast, located in Fort Myers and near her hometown of Naples, wasn't entirely predicated on missing those multisport days. But for someone who regularly sat in the stands for Florida State's volleyball matches during her one fall in Tallahassee and couldn't get an itch out of her system, trading Division I athletic accoutrements for the chance to play both volleyball and softball at a Division II school was appealing.
In doing so, she went against the grain of increasing specialization that encourages -- and perhaps more accurately, pressures -- girls to focus on one sport and train year-round.
"Every club coach would pressure me to play only their sport or play more of their sport or whatever it was," Jenks said of her athletic upbringing. "But I couldn't really give up one for the other; I just loved them all too much."
Deiros and volleyball coach Dave Nichols both were open to the talent-sharing arrangement and agreed that neither would make any demands of her time during the other's season -- fall for volleyball and spring for softball. It just made sense to accommodate a special talent -- someone who in her limited summer "offseason" is more likely to be on the beach playing volleyball or working out in the gym than taking it easy.
"She's the proverbial definition of a gym rat, but she has variable gyms," Deiros said. "Whichever gym happens to be open, whether it's the softball field, the volleyball court, the soccer field, beach volleyball, racquetball court, it doesn't matter. You name the gym; she'll want to be playing in it."
Since Florida Gulf Coast moved to Division I during the 2007-08 academic year, Jenks has been part of teams that are a combined 124-29 (43-11 on the volleyball court and 81-18 on the softball diamond). She's won two volleyball regular-season conference titles and a share of the 2007-08 softball regular-season conference title, with another there for the taking over the course of the next month. But because of the rules that dictate a waiting period before new Division I teams can become postseason eligible, she'll finish her college career without the opportunity to win anything more.
"If you leave your college athletic career and you have four conference titles and never even get to go to your conference tournament, it's definitely frustrating," Jenks said. "They declare us the winners and then they have a conference tournament without us. It just doesn't really make much sense, but I guess we all have to play by the rules."
But where the regular season could become meaningless without the possibility of a postseason payoff at the end of the schedule, it instead has become Florida Gulf Coast's opportunity to prove a point. At a tournament in Hawaii in early March, the team held on for a 2-1 win against Oregon State, the program's first against a Pac-10 opponent, by stranding the potential tying run in the bottom of both the sixth and seventh innings. After the game, the Beavers congratulated the Eagles on winning their "World Series," and it wasn't an assessment the victors were in a hurry to contradict.
"We were in that game and we were excited to play like it was our playoff game," Deiros said. "I remember jumping out of the dugout on a very tight play that saved us a run. So I'm just as enthusiastic and just as excitable as the players are about those big plays. I think that's really what strikes me more, that sense of immediacy -- that now is what's important, not looking forward to preparing for the postseason and setting out how you're going to be in the brackets and so on and so forth. It's playing in the now."
Which is pretty much how the player who might become the first All-American in the program's Division I era has always approached her athletic career. Put a ball in front of her, and she's ready to play, whatever the surface and whatever the sport.
For her part, Jenks doesn't think about how she might have fared had she elected to put all her energies into one sport. And while Deiros certainly has pondered what might have been had she been his pupil full time, he isn't about to get greedy.
As Deiros said, "If opportunities for women to really excel professionally and really get large quantities of money for their talents were there for their sports -- for softball, for volleyball -- maybe you might be able to look back and say, 'Maybe I could have honed my skills a little bit more or focused a little more on this and done that.'
"But I'll say this: I think that what Cheyenne has been able to do, because she has attacked both sports so ambitiously and aggressively, is that she's gotten the best out of her time."
When the future is out of your hands, you might as well seize the moment.
Graham Hays covers softball for espn.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.