JC Clayton leads Cougars with consistent play

BY JORDAN CHRISTIANSEN
BYU Athletic Media Relations

BYU softball’s 2010 season was arguably the greatest in the program’s history. The Cougars won a team-record 46 games, claimed the conference championship and advanced past the NCAA Regional to the Super Regional for the first time ever.

The heart of the order for BYU that year included some of the greatest big hitters to ever play in Provo, including Angie Quiocho, Andrea Ramirez and Jessica Purcell-Fitu in addition to other names that dot that the Mountain West Conference and BYU record books like Kristin Delahoussaye and Caschjen Davis-Atagi.

Those five players hold four of the top spots in most career runs, four of the top five spots in career hits, five of the top six spots in career doubles and three of the top four spots in career RBI.

But as the Cougars’ historic season progressed, it was a new freshman with as consistent a bat as any player to wear a BYU uniform that contributed throughout the season and in the most clutch at bat in Cougar history.

JC Clayton arrived in Utah Valley from Hollister, Calif., as a 5-foot-5 all-state infielder who quietly found a starting spot in the lineup on opening day. Once there, Clayton’s naturally relaxed attitude set in.

“There were no expectations from anyone that I had to get 80 hits,” Clayton said. “I just tried hard to compete for a spot.  After I earned the spot, I was just playing. I didn’t feel the pressure that the seniors or juniors felt.”

The freshman slapper frustrated opposing defenses throughout the year with her combination of carefully placed hits and speed. Clayton started the season with a nine-game hit streak and ended it on a 15-game streak in which she racked up 31 total hits. Batting in front of three of the greatest home run hitters in BYU history, including Quiocho, who led the NCAA in home runs per game and RBI per game in 2010, Clayton also scored 20 runs.

Clayton’s latter streak included five games in the NCAA tournament, a place BYU had reached each of the previous five years but had yet to advance past the first round.

After defeating East Carolina to open the tourney, the Cougars faced No. 7 Texas, the host team, in the double elimination first round. With the game tied in the bottom of the seventh and final inning,

Clayton found herself at the plate with one out and runners on second and third. 

Pressure? No problem. Clayton got her bat on the first pitch she saw, hitting a sacrifice fly to score the runner from third, winning the game and all but sending the Cougars on to the second round after BYU again defeated East Carolina behind Clayton’s 4 of 5 day from the plate to give the Cougars their first-ever Super Regional berth.

“I enjoy big games like that,” Clayton said. “I enjoy playing the harder teams. It’s a lot more fun. It’s a way for me to see how good I am compared to the bigger schools.”

Clayton won MWC Freshman of the Year and All-Conference First Team honors, finishing first in the league in batting average, hits, multi-hit games and on base percentage.  Her .430 average was second best in a season in BYU history and her total of 80 hits tied her for third-most in a season and most ever by a Cougar freshman.

Yet as intense as Clayton plays, she fits right in with BYU softball team persona – a fun-loving, happy, and even occasionally goofy group that not only knows how to have fun but can rack up win after win and championship after championship.

While her favorite memory is advancing to the Super Regional in 2010, Clayton especially enjoys her friends on the team.

“I like our team shenanigans,” Clayton said.  “We get together and cook meals for each other. We have dance parties, play games, or play Guitar Hero. Our latest thing is playing Just Dance on the Kinect. We even just had a team talent show.”

Clayton grew up as the youngest of three siblings, with one older brother and an older sister. While her older sister is a typical “girly-girl” (“She didn’t take to sports. Her first soccer game she got hit in the stomach with a ball and that was it,” Clayton says) Clayton took to her parents’ encouragement that she be involved in sports.  While also lettering in soccer at San Benito High, Clayton started four years of varsity softball for the Balers.

Clayton’s father, Darrell, a former junior college coach, was the first to start calling his daughter, Jacqueline, a simpler JC while helping her become one of the best players in the Tri-County Athletic League, earning MVP honors and Cal-Hi Sports Overall All-State honors her senior year.

“My dad coached me my whole life,” Clayton said.

“He taught me pretty much all I know about softball.”

From her early teens, Clayton was taught to slap, a mode of hitting in softball that utilizes a player’s speed and hitting expertise rather than force. Lining up as a left-handed hitter in order to reach first base quicker and easier, a slapper attempts to make contact with the pitch while moving forward in order to bounce the ball high off the dirt to enable the hitter to get on base before the infielders can corral the ball and throw to first.

During her freshman year, Clayton’s coach wanted her to hit right-handed despite her and her team’s wishes. If the coach had to leave a game early, Clayton would switch back to left. In her sophomore season, Clayton’s coach agreed to let her bat left, then watched as Clayton’s batting average went up .100.

Though hitting home runs may be what kids dream of growing up, Clayton prefers competing against the infield.

“I like the challenge,” Clayton said. “Whenever you’re a slapper the defense pulls in and you have so many different options. You make the person make a perfect play on you. It’s more fun to me.”

Clayton committed to BYU in her junior year after being offered a scholarship by Coach Eakin.

“I liked the environment,” Clayton said. “I love the mountains and the school is pretty. It’s a good school academically and they have a good softball program that I thought I could make a difference in.”

Not a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Clayton says the honor code isn’t an issue because it outlines the same standards she had her home.

“It wasn’t a change of life,” Clayton said. “I just hadn’t signed a paper [the ecclesiastical endorsement] before. There wasn’t much of a difference.”

Clayton’s parents supported her decision to attend BYU.

“They liked that it was a safe environment and close to home,” Clayton said.

There’s just one thing her mother is worried that she’s not safe from.

“She tells me all the time ‘Don’t get married! You can’t get married!’” Clayton says with a smile.

In BYU’s last season earlier this year, Clayton reprised her role, leading the team and the MWC with 66 hits with a .373 batting average. Against Seattle midway through the season, Clayton hit a home run short of a cycle with three RBIs and two runs. Later that same day against Loyola Marymount, Clayton fouled a ball off of her left foot. Despite the pain she experienced the rest of the year, Clayton continued to start, helping BYU win another conference championship and earn another trip to the NCAA tournament last May.

After the contusion on her foot continued to give her pain over the summer, an x-ray showed a bone spur that would require surgery. Later, loose cartilage was also discovered. Clayton underwent surgery in September, causing her to miss the fall preseason but ensuring she’ll be back to full health when the team begins regular season play in February when the Cougars will strive again for a conference championship, this time in the Western Athletic Conference, and make more noise in the NCAA tournament.

“We have the talent to be good again,” Clayton said. “I am excited for our team to have the chance to play in the WAC and keep our conference championship streak alive.”