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    The Final Byte: Why It Was So Hard To Leave The 'J'

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    With the Northwestern Softball alumni game just a day away, Kristin (Scharkey) Jensen looks back on her four years in Kate Drohan's program in the final installment of Schark Bytes.

    I remember the first time I met Kate and Caryl Drohan.


    It was a cool, summer night in Huntington Beach, Calif., and I was a junior in high school playing in an exposure tournament with my travel ball team, SoCal Explosion. The Drohans had gotten word from our recruiting coordinator Bret Denio that I was extremely interested in the school and mid-way through one of our night games they showed up.

    I don't remember who we were playing and or exactly what they said when they got there, but I do remember running out to center field to find them plopped down just beyond the break-through white fence. For the last few innings, they heckled me under their breath, giggling as they tried to get me to smile.

    If I did smile it was only out of nerves, since I thought my heart was going to beat out of my chest as I prayed for the butterflies in my stomach to go away. I was 18-years-old, two years out of braces and unsure of what I wanted to do with the rest of my life let alone where I wanted to go to college. Plus, the Drohans were just a year off of back-to-back Women's College World Series championship game appearances, and I wanted very badly to play in their program.

    Back then, I thought what mattered was the fact that I went 2-for-3 in front of the Drohans. But what mattered was much more than that. 

    Fast-forward two years to my first day on Sharon J. Drysdale Field-- the 'J.' The team was huddled around the Drohans on the mound for our first day of practice, and they were explaining how to do the next drill. All of us freshmen stood in a line together, too afraid to branch out and stand next to seniors like Nicole Pauly and Emily Haug, constantly tugging at our new pants that we had yet to fill out from weight lifting. Suddenly, Kate turned to us and began naming off which position we should go to for the drill. I was facing home plate and my back was to right field, so when Kate said, "Scharkey, go to right," I immediately started running towards my right-hand side. Into left field. I got about halfway there-- to the spot where most opposing shortstops play Adrienne Monka-- when I realized my mistake.

    For a while, that was how I would've characterized my freshman year, a lot of change and even more ineptitude. That day-- and a lot of days-- I felt like the world was coming to an end. I felt it every time I sat outside Kate's office rubbing sweaty palms on sweatpants in anticipation of one-on-one meetings. Back then, the entire transition into college was overwhelming, and I thought my place at the bottom of the learning curve was what mattered.

    What mattered, however, was the fact that Megan Lilley was on the team and drove us freshmen to-and-from practice every single day without us even asking. What really mattered was the day my parents and I pulled into the parking lot of the Bobb-McCullough dorm to move me in, only to have our car--and all of my boxes and belongings-- descended upon by the entire team. Neither me nor my parents carried one piece of luggage up the two flights of stairs.

    What really mattered was when I walked up the stairs of Bobb and into the dorm hallway I'd call home, I found that my room was next door to Emily Allard, a northern California native who used the word "hella" in ways that I didn't even know were possible. She would say "hi" to anyone in the street, dance in public whenever she heard any type of music and laughed so loud I thought everyone in our hall might be able to hear it. I'd never met anyone like Allard, who was the opposite of me in every possible way. The thing was, we were bonded by this experience of playing Northwestern softball and because of that, I became best friends with someone so outside my social circle that I probably wouldn't have been friends with otherwise. I learned more from Allard than I did any other person in college; what it means to be confident but not cocky, what it means to put others before yourself, and what it means to live for a win column instead of a stat line.

    Sophomore year memories start out with a Northwestern women's volleyball game in the fall. I was sitting on the west side bleachers in Welsh-Ryan Arena with a few teammates and Caryl, who turned to me and said I was required to go over to the east side and talk to Christine Brennan, who was sitting up high in the tenth row. I said she was crazy and she said I would lose at-bats come season, so I moseyed over and climbed through the seats in what would be the first of many conversations with the woman who made it possible for a female journalist like me to cover sports. Brennan actually covered our program for The Daily Northwestern during her time in Evanston, so she had a special connection to the Drohans that I was fortunate enough to be a part of. After she graduated and left The Daily, another young Medill student covered the team as an intern in the athletic communications department. His name was Doug Meffley, and a dozen years later he continues to be the sports information director for Northwestern Softball. When I didn't really know him, I thought what mattered was that fact that he seemed to be an integral part of our program, traveling to every game and coming to every team function. But what really mattered was the fact that Doug edited any written piece I sent his way for four years, always challenging me to be a better journalist and writer. What matters is that he is the sole reason why I've been given so many of the writing opportunities I've had during my time at Northwestern, let alone this blog.

    I thought what mattered sophomore year was the fact that I wasn't a freshman anymore. What really mattered was the fact that Kate had recruited that year's senior class-- Michelle Batts, Kelly Quinn, Jessica Smith, Robin Thompson and Jordan Wheeler-- a few years earlier. Period.

    Junior year, I thought our post-season NCAA tournament run in Texas was what mattered. I didn't think I'd ever forget packing our entire team and coaching staff into the second-floor living room of the softball house in Evanston, all glued to the television hoping we'd get an at-large bid to NCAA Regionals. I don't remember my immediate reaction when Northwestern appeared on the screen; all I know is five seconds later I was jumping up and down on the couch, shouting, "We did it! We did it!" among a chorus of other screams. I thought the second floor of our house might drop straight through to the first floor with how much it was shaking. All of my teammates were crying and hugging, and I looked over to find Kate with a huge grin, on her knees in the middle of the pack with her hands clenched into fists of victory above her head. I was sure the memory of shutting out Texas 2-0 in 100-degree weather that first day in Austin would never leave me; along with the hundreds of fan Tweets and messages that poured in, and the momentum we carried into another win the next day over Houston.

    I'll never forget having my wrist broken in the first game of our doubleheader against the Longhorns on the last day of the Regional. I stood inside the dugout before the second if-necessary game with a giant ice bag on my wrist and Kate standing with crossed arms in front of me. "I want you out there, even if you're at 75%," she commanded. "Can you do it?" The question was more of a courtesy, as both of us knew exactly what my answer would be without her even asking. During my four years in a purple uniform, I learned that pain is temporary, if anything at all. Even though we lost that second game, I still thought that entire weekend in Texas was what mattered. I was right.

    I think it was easy for me as an underclassman to get caught up in the minutiae, in the little things that were happening to me. When you're so overwhelmed with a new city, new school, new apartment, it's easy to not be able to see the big picture. It's even harder when you're driving to 7 a.m. practice on most weekday mornings and running the Ryan Field stadium on some afternoons. I came from a small Orange County bubble where I was surrounded by comfort. When you feel like your life is being turned upside down at the hand of two twins who feel a lot like your mother, it's easy to feel extremely uncomfortable. After I experienced such an outpouring of Wildcat support across the country after our post-season run in Texas, however, my perspective started to change. I realized that my favorite days of the year were open practices, when we'd pack more fans into our indoor practice facility than we probably could fit. Since I was seemingly always injured, I'd get to sit right in the middle of the 10U and 12U teams in the outfield and watch practice alongside our youngest fans. Those same fans would attend our games and inch as close up to the centerfield fence at the 'J' as they could so they could cheer behind me every time I caught a pop fly.

    Back then, I thought the fact that I couldn't practice due to injury every single open practice was what mattered, along with the fact that I missed a lot of games in my career because of it. What really mattered was leaving the 'J' after a spring game my senior year and being approached by a little girl that I met at one of those open practices, who asked her mom to celebrate her birthday by taking her to a Northwestern Softball game so she could get my autograph.  

    I've never been so humbled as I was in the purple uniform. And I'm not just talking about in practice when I'd make errors. I'm talking about the hundreds of younger softball players that came to our games to support us and the hundreds of women that played before us that also came to our games to stand with us. I'm talking about understanding the bigger picture: that the game is bigger than yourself. Several times throughout my career, I got to hang out with the namesake of our field, Sharon J. Drysdale. She wouldn't tell me what the "J" stood for, as she won't with anyone, but I got to talk softball with a woman who used to pack twenty plus bologna sandwiches in the back of a station wagon and load her team up to go play conference games. Until Title IX, they didn't receive the necessary funding to travel like teams do today. Sharon J. Drysdale is one of the pioneers of female sports, the reason I got to have the experience as a Northwestern student-athlete that I did. Sharon J. Drysdale is also a genius, in my opinion, because she hired a wonderful replacement in Kate Drohan. 

    My perspective continued to evolve around the same time that I felt I finally understood Kate. I pulled that same sweaty palms stint outside her office door before our one-on-one meetings up until the end of sophomore year. Junior year, it started to change. It wasn't some sort of epiphany of a single conversation, I think I just sort of grew up and wanted the relationship to be different. Over time, she just started to make sense; why she never accepted anything less than an A in my classes, why she (usually) let me play when I was injured, why she never stood for any type of team gossip. Jimmie Johnson once said, "Treat a person as he is, and he will remain as he is. Treat him as he could be, and he will become what he should be." I've never met someone who so fully lives out that statement than Kate Drohan. When you're a freshman, that kind of intensity is intimidating. When you're a junior and finally understand it, it changes your perspective on Kate, and on everything.

    Senior year was the year of the "Dro-Zone." The 'J' has stands in both left field and center field, then all the way around the backstop. The right field bleachers became the home for the pack of Northwestern Football players that attended every home game that called themselves the Dro-Zone and heckled every opposing outfielder. Earlier that year, our team woke up at 4 a.m. to get on the road to Michigan where the football team was playing. Six months later, two carloads full of them showed up in Ann Arbor when we took on the Wolverines. My fiance was one of that pack, and I'll never forget going into Kate's office just a few months ago on February 28 to tell her that Mike and I got engaged the night before. She was overjoyed, no doubt, but I was one of her seniors about to enter the Big Ten season and she wanted to make one thing clear: she was first and foremost my coach and would prioritize softball as such. In that moment, I knew what mattered was that her statement was one of the most tangible forms of "tough love" I'd ever experienced. To me, tough love is real love because it is deep and raw, not fake and surface-level. I wanted to jump up and hug the woman who isn't a huge fan of hugs for loving and respecting me enough to continue to expect my best in every aspect of my life, no matter the circumstances. I smiled and nodded, giving her my word that there wouldn't be any bridal magazines on the bus when we went on a road trip.

    That's Kate, always celebrating exactly who you are... and challenging you to continuously strive to grow and be better.

    Senior year was supposed to be our last go-around, Allard and I's. Instead she made the difficult decision to redshirt and took on a different role on our team. Coach, mentor, friend. The thing was, I hit for a career high average that year, and I know for a fact it's because I had the best slapper in the nation as my own personal hitting coach since she couldn't practice herself. Instead of our usual weeknight routine of making way too many crescent rolls for dinner and watching shows like X-Factor, we sat on the couch and she let me get inside her head, inside the mentality that makes her one of the best to have stepped on a softball field. Not to say it didn't sting all the more when I stood on one side of the white chalk lines with my family on the 'J' for Senior Day while Emily strode up to us on the other side, with flowers in her hand and a hug that lasted much longer than all the others. That embrace-- it was the only way we knew how to be together on the 'J' one last time; the place where it started and the place where it was ending, the place where we stopped being girls and learned how to be women.

    About a month ago, Allard and I moved out of the apartment we shared for half of our college careers. I thought what mattered was making sure we divvied up the furniture and cooking utensils. What really mattered was the fact that I had to remove the Christmas lights strung all the way around our living room ceiling and the holly still covering our mantle from the holidays; a few months earlier, Emily and I purchased a four-foot Christmas tree and decorated it with ornaments hung by paper clips for the holidays. Emily Allard was and continues to be the family I moved 2,000 miles away from.

    A few days after Senior Day, Meghan Lamberth and I played our last game on the 'J.' It was April 30, and the 'Cats beat DePaul 4-2. My eyes welled up in center field during the national anthem, and again at several points during the game when I looked out at crowd in the stands, the players on our bench and the eight other girls surrounding me on the field. I remember standing in the on-deck circle in the bottom of the seventh inning, plotting to swing out of my shoes if I got up-to-bat. As our leadoff slapper, I rarely got the chance to hit away, and I wasn't about to leave the 'J' on a normal note. Unfortunately, the hitter in front of me grounded into the last out of the game and I walked off the 'J' for the last time with one slap-hit on the day. I started packing up my equipment in the dugout and I realized I was dragging my feet, loitering around my spot on the bench. I didn't want to leave.

    I don't think I understood how much that mattered until a few weeks later, when we traveled to Lincoln, Neb., and were eliminated in our second game of the Big Ten Tournament. That day I thought what mattered was the fact that we lost, and Lamberth and I ended our careers on a softball field in Nebraska. What really mattered was the fact that it was harder to leave the 'J' for the last time than it was to leave the Nebraska diamond.

    At one point late in the season, Kate gave our team a pep talk and said four words that, I'm sure, will forever be in the back of my head. I honestly don't remember why she was yelling or what we were even talking about, but the fact of the matter was she was trying to explain her expectations for our team: that no one would slack in any area of their life. During that pep talk, Kate told us this: "Everything you do matters."

    Everything you do matters. 

    Everything you do matters.

    Everything you do matters.

    Everything you do matters.

    Kate and Caryl live by the belief that one swing can change a game. No matter what the score or what your previous 10 at-bats have been. It's all about what you do in response to the moment you are given. It's the same in life -- when you focus on the things that are happening to you, it's easy to get caught up in the things that don't matter. When you realize that how you respond matters, suddenly you're swinging for the fences.

    It was so hard for me to leave the 'J' that last time because it was a place where you had to walk the walk, and not just talk the talk. It was a place of triumph and it was a place of defeat; but through it all, it was a place where you had to continue to press on, keep doing. Kate's emphasis in her pep talk that day was not just on the word "everything." No, our head coach wanted to make sure we understood that we were in control of our own lives and we were in control of how we reacted to curve balls-- both on and off the field.

    There are a lot of things that I thought mattered during college that didn't. There are a lot of things that I look back on and realize matter now. And almost all of the moments that have mattered the most were times when the women I met in this program did something in spite of, or to change their circumstances.

    In Kate Drohan's program, I've learned that my dreams are not dreams, but visions completely within reach if I'm willing to work for them. Each and every day that I spent with Kate, she demanded the best--my best--for the team, for my grades, for my family and most importantly for myself. It's that mentality that molds high school girls with braces into graduated, educated women; women who have left everything on the 'J' and realize that they still have everything left to give.

    I had several other wonderful options of where I could've played college softball and received a stellar education. Stanford, Washington, DePaul. But in the end, I chose Northwestern. I got on the phone with Kate Drohan as a high school senior once I'd made the decision and -- with my hands shaking -- said, "Kate, I want to be a Wildcat!"

    It's the best decision I've ever made. What I said to Kate as an 18-year-old girl will ring true for the rest of my life. Northwestern has shaped me, molded me and made me into the woman I am today. I am, and will always be, a Wildcat; forever grateful, and better off because of it.

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    2 Comments

    Wow! Amazing! Thanks for sharing, Kristin

    our daughter was a college athlete and it shaped much of her life for the better..she is a successful businesswoman, wife and mom today. Her competitive spirit is greater now than ever and her work ethic is inspirational. I hope and feel sure that Kristin's life will follow the same upward path. Thanks for sharing your story.

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