College softball all-conference teams are being announced, and a few teams have advanced deep into the NCAA Tournament. When the Brigham Young University softball team lost to Northwestern last Friday in the NCAA Regional Tournament in Seattle, the curtain came down on the collegiate careers of five outstanding seniors.
Four of the graduating players — pitcher Tori Almond, outfielder Carly Duckworth, first baseman Katie Manuma and infielder Ashlee Robinson — came to the program as highly-prized recruits. Robinson transferred to BYU after playing her freshman year at the University of Arizona, and the others came in as scholarship freshmen.
The fifth senior, Jenna Goar, took a less-traveled-by path to her college softball career, but like the others, she has left her mark on the Cougar program. Goar, formerly Jenna Engel, came to BYU from Heritage High School in Littleton, Colorado. She was not heavily recruited. In fact, after she attended softball camps following her sophomore and junior years in high school, head coach Gordon Eakin essentially told her to look elsewhere.
“I really wanted to come to BYU so I contacted the coaches, and they told me they would come and take a look at me,” Goar said. “Meanwhile some small colleges were looking at me and giving me offers, but I really wanted to come to BYU. So, coaches came and watched me. They told me that I would never be good enough to play here.”
That message might have convinced Goar, but it did not. Her decision to attend BYU and her desire to have softball be part of the experience drove her to keep at it.
“I got accepted at BYU in January of my senior year. I had just made the decision that this was where I was going to come, no matter what,” Goar said. “I really wanted softball to be a part of that, but I had really prayed a lot about it and fasted and I just knew that this was the place for me.
“I didn’t want to take no for an answer, so I just kept fighting and working hard. I wasn’t even going to go (to the BYU camp) in the summer after my senior year, but I thought I had nothing to lose. So I went to the camp, and that’s when coach offered me a spot on the team (as a walk-on).”
Eakin remembers well the girl from Colorado who kept at him about being part of the BYU softball program. His strongest memory of those days was Goar’s determination.
“She continued to contact me to make sure that I knew who she was and to watch her, and I did,” Eakin said. “I remember having one of the last conversations with her that I just didn’t see her as a contributor to our program at that time. She was determined and told me that she was a contributor. It made me take another look at her. I remember the final conversation was me telling her, ‘OK, you’ve convinced me that you can contribute. We’ll give you a spot on the roster.’
“She was a determined soul. She just believed in herself and believed that she could get it done. She had a great work ethic. Sometimes there’s no replacement for a determined soul. She just believed that she could do it, and she convinced me.” — BYU head softball coach Gordon Eakin
“Walk-ons are pretty rare with Division I softball, especially here (at BYU),” Eakin said. “We recruit so far out and limit our roster that to be a walk-on player and actually stick is a pretty tall order.”
Even having received the invitation to be part of the team did not guarantee that Jenna Goar was going to last as a BYU softball player. The grinding travel schedule associated with softball makes it one of the toughest sports on campus for a serious student-athlete.
Debbie Dodds, who currently coaches softball at Provo’s Timpview High School, is an example cited by Eakin as one of the few other players to walk on at BYU and stick through four full years during his 14-year tenure. Dodds had made a personal commitment that she would not play on Sunday and had decided to play softball at Ricks College.
Then came the announcement, after a campus visit during her junior year, that Ricks College would become BYU-Idaho and that it would discontinue its athletics program. Dodds turned her attention to making the team at BYU in Provo and let the coach at that time, Mary Kay Amicone, know that she was going to walk on.
“I think one of the things about being a walk-on is you are never certain about your status,” Dodds said. “Throughout my career I always felt like I had to work harder than anyone else because my future was uncertain. There was never a day when I thought that I had it made. Each day was a battle. It wasn’t until I started signing documents at our first team meeting that I realized I was on the team.”
That was in 2002 and by the time she graduated in 2005, Dodds had become an all-conference player for the Cougars. Amicone set Dodds up with a partial scholarship after her freshman year, when the coach left the program and was replaced by Eakin, but her experience as a walk-on provides a lot of insight into what Jenna Goar was facing when she arrived on campus.
“That year, and the next couple I spent what I felt was paying my dues,” Dodds said. “I spent much of my time catching bullpens, jumping the outfield fence retrieving home run balls, making sure the camera had tape in it, charting, pinch-running, carrying equipment through the airport and off buses, and being the best-conditioned player on the team.
“I decided that if I wasn’t the best softball player on the team then I was going to be the best at something. I set myself up for four years of having to win every conditioning day we ever had. It was a mental battle that really prepared me to stick it out. I think it also helped me gain the respect of my teammates. I wanted to be a leader. I went about it by giving my best every day. I didn’t take days off.”
Except for a small stipend during one semester of her sophomore year, Goar did not receive a scholarship until her final campaign. She was playing softball, carrying a heavy course load, working to earn the money and eventually even squeezing in time for her husband.
“It was hard. I went through times where I wasn’t sure if I wanted to continue. School was a top priority for me. Softball is a huge time commitment,” Goar said. “Some days I wondered if it was even worth it, but I know hard work pays off. I had a lot of encouragement from my parents to keep playing, but they also wanted me to make the decision that was right for me. A lot of prayer went into it and I’m glad that I stuck with it.”
One of the factors that may have kept Goar from being a major recruit was her late arrival to softball. The Colorado native grew up playing baseball, In fact, during her sophomore year in high school, she played both sports before finally turning full time to softball for her junior season.
“I have three older brothers and two of them played baseball so I was dragged to their games all the time, and I just really liked it,” Goar said. “I started playing when I was seven, I think. (When) I started, it was a co-ed team, so it was normal. It was half girls and half boys. Then, a couple of years passed and the girls started to disappear, and by the time I was 10 or 11, I was the only girl on my team.”
An adjustment in the transition from baseball to softball was what happened in the batter’s box.
“The first time I saw a rise-ball was my sophomore year of high school. I stepped out of the box, looked down at my coach, and it was like…’what was that?'” Goar said. “He said, ‘That’s a rise-ball. Welcome to softball.’ That was the hardest part, going back and forth between the ball coming at a downward angle to going at an upward angle, and (the pitcher’s mound) was a lot closer. After a year and a half, I started to get used to it, but then I decided to stop playing baseball.”
That decision came later than it does for most girls, and while she feels it may have impacted the recruiting process, she wouldn’t change a thing.
“I don’t regret it at all,” Goar said. “It made me who I am today, I think. I went through a lot of adversity because I had opposite teams ragging on my all the time – ‘you’re a girl, go back to slow pitch or whatever.’ I was a pitcher for baseball, too, so I really got razzed.”
Her advice to girls who may have started out playing baseball?
“If they can do both, for a while, it’s a good experience, but I’d probably say softball because it’s hard to get recruited when you’re playing baseball,” Goar said. “I would say, definitely in high school, stick to softball. I loved playing baseball. I learned a lot from it, and it also gave me part of my competitive spirit because I was competing against boys. I wouldn’t say that I regret not playing softball (earlier) because I loved everything about my baseball career.”
For his part, Coach Eakin is not convinced there is anything about Goar’s game that points to her having spent so much time playing with the smaller ball.
“This game has different nuances, but it’s really not all that different from baseball anyway,” Eakin said. “I guess you could say you see baseball in all of them. I just see softball in her.”
During her four years on campus at BYU, the “walk-on” label had no real impact on the way Jenna Goar was viewed by her teammates. Her coach saw her as a leader, not just because of the way she played, but because of the person that she is.
“She’s just a consummate team player,” Eakin said. Even if she wasn’t getting time as a contributor, she’s just so great to have on the team because she’s a leader. She lifts the other girls’ spirits. She’s a kid that everybody looks up to, just a great teammate. On top of that, she’s progressed as a player and makes contributions on the field.
“She knows where she’s going. She knows what she wants. She’s very determined, a hard worker and a great leader. Those things give her that edge that maybe some of the raw talent deficiencies might not have given her. She’s a Pete Rose kind of hard worker. He didn’t have the greatest talent, but no one outworked him.”
Eakin said her BYU experience was worth the time and effort she put into being part of the softball program.
“When she plays, she contributes, and when she doesn’t play, she contributes,” Eakin said. “I think she’s been fulfilled as a softball player being part of the team and contributing whatever way she can. I wish all of our players had her work ethic and attitude.”
One of the things Goar was not willing to sacrifice, even for softball, was success in the classroom. An exercise and wellness major who has plans to move on to physical therapy school after graduation, she was the softball team’s “scholar athlete” during her sophomore and junior seasons. She accomplished this while working.
“Luckily, my uncle was very generous,” Goar said. “He passed away and left each of his nieces and nephews with a good chunk of money to get us through school, but I didn’t want to rely on just that, so I worked.
“Starting my sophomore year I worked about 15 hours a week in the Student Athlete Building as a tutor and mentor. I got to work with athletes, which I loved. And I put school as a priority.”
Goar married in 2011. Her husband, Wes, was also a student-athlete, a BYU lacrosse player. Marriage and a spouse added something else into her juggling act.
“It was hard traveling and being away from him, but we are both athletic and understand. In a typical relationship someone may say, ‘You’re leaving for seven weeks in a row, Wednesday through Sunday. Where does that leave me?'” Goar said. “When he played lacrosse, he had a pretty vigorous travel schedule as well, so he supports me and I support him.”
Now that her playing days are over, Goar is moving on to the next stage of life, but she can’t imagine she will totally abandon the game she loves.
“I know that I don’t want to leave the game completely,” Goar said. “I like physical therapy because I would like to work with athletes when I do that. I eventually want to coach, probably softball, but I would love to coach baseball too. I’m definitely not done with it. I just probably won’t be playing anymore.”
As she looks back over her slife as a walk-on who made her dream of playing softball at BYU, Jenna Goar has great advice for those who will follow in her footsteps.
“Never give up,” Goar said. “Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do something. With hard work you can do anything.”