There are 11 transfers on BYU's new softball team, including Jackie Ellis.
Since President Merrill J. Bateman announced the establishment of a NCAA sanctioned softball team at BYU, there has been an emphasis on new beginnings. A new era of BYU athletics, particularly in women's sports, and a fresh start for the coaches and players alike in laying the foundation for a competitive and well-rounded program.
Perhaps the embodiment of the idea of a new beginning is Ellis, the Cougars' starting second baseman and a transfer from Pac-10 school University of Oregon. Ellis, a 5-6 junior from Medford, Ore., is one of two transfer athletes from a four-year school (University of Arizona pitcher Meghan Pricer is the other one).
A promising player who as a freshman saw time starting at shortstop for the Ducks, Ellis passed up finishing her eligibility at a quality program in one of the top softball conferences to begin anew at BYU.
"Things just didn't work out (at Oregon)," Ellis said carefully. "I wanted to come to a more spiritual environment and just start a new life."
A new life it is for most of the members of the softball team, but particularly Ellis. Ellis was born in St. Louis before eventually settling with her sports-oriented family in Medford, Oregon. Ellis grew up consumed by sports, first looking up to figures like basketball legend Michael Jordan, because "he had an unusual situation to start with by being cut in high school but still made it to the pros" and then All-Star Atlanta Braves third baseman Chipper Jones, whose number 10 Ellis now wears on the field.
"I started with t-ball, and then I played baseball with the boys," Ellis remembered, laughing. "For the last two years I was the only girl, and then in fourth grade or so they kind of said, 'maybe you should play softball with the rest of the girls.' So that's when I started playing softball."
From there Ellis competed in soccer, volleyball, basketball, softball and track. In high school Ellis was forced to give up soccer in favor of volleyball because of the fall season conflict, and then played basketball in the winter, and softball during the spring. Though she didn't practice with the track team because of schedule conflicts, Ellis did manage to squeeze in track meets on the side. By the end of her high school career, Ellis had earned four varsity letters in softball, three each in basketball and volleyball, and one in track.
"It was crazy, but I loved every minute of it," Ellis said.
Upon graduation, Ellis decided to play for nearby University of Oregon. It was close to home, and Ellis had a close relationship with the coach who recruited her. As a freshman, Ellis appeared in all but five of the Ducks' games, and started at shortstop in 28 games. Ellis was eighth on the team with a .269 batting average, but compiled an astonishing .305 average against Pac-10 opponents, better than any of her more experienced teammates.
As if Ellis hadn't made enough of a name for herself as a freshman, the highlight of her first season came against UCLA pitcher Christa Williams, the same Christa Williams who went undefeated with 15 strikeouts and no earned runs for the 1996 gold-medal winning U.S. Olympic softball team.
"It was the first game I started as a freshman. I was playing shortstop, and no one expected me to get a hit off of her," Ellis recalled.
But to everyone's surprise-everyone but Ellis herself, that is-she proceeded to march up to the plate, and each time, connect for a hit off of the revered Olympian. Ellis finished 4-for-4 in the game.
"I wanted to prove them wrong, to show them that I can do this," Ellis said.
Ellis was named the team's most improved player that year, and the next season continued with much of the same. Ellis raised her overall average nearly 30 points from the year before, to .293, sixth on the team. But the coach who was so pivotal in bringing Ellis to the team left after her freshman season, and Ellis saw less playing time than the previous season. Ellis craved a different playing environment, so when the opportunity at BYU presented itself, Ellis jumped at the chance.
"I really appreciate the chance I have here," Ellis said. "We have a great coach and I feel like we can go a long ways."
Though Ellis saw some time at second base at Oregon, she is primarily a shortstop who is adjusting to her newly designated position on the other side of the infield.
"It's not that much different, and we have a great shortstop in Becca Erickson. I'm getting a good feel for it and we're working together, so I think it will go well," Ellis said.
The composition of the new softball team is a unique one. Just one holdover from the club team remains on the varsity team (outfielder Emily Fernley). In addition to the 11 transfer students are eight high school recruits. Despite the diversity, or perhaps because of it, Ellis said the team chemistry is pivotal to the team's potential this season.
"We have a bond like no other team. We're in this together," she said. "It feels good to be on this team. We have a lot of fun together. On the field everyone knows their roles and is willing to do them. Everyone has a team perspective."
The BYU softball team was recently picked by the coaches to finish last in the Mountain West Conference. Rather than allowing themselves to be discouraged, Ellis said the team welcomes such predictions.
"We're excited the challenge is there," she said. "We're going to take every opportunity we can. I think we'll surprise a lot of people.
"We're not really worried about the win-loss column anyway. We just want to feel like we are improving and be prepared for the conference season. We just want to accomplish our goal of getting better, whether that reflects in our record or not."
In large part, Ellis' individual goals are the team goals.
"I don't really have any personal goals, they're more directed toward the team," she said. "I want to feel like I've been able to fulfill my ability and improve, but really I want to have a good experience as a team."
When pressed further, Ellis finally does give in to one individual goal. "Maybe I'd be overshooting, but I'd really like to try out for the Olympic team someday," she admitted. But then showing typical resolve, Ellis flashed a smile and said, "Even if it is overshooting, I wouldn't be here today if I didn't strive a little higher than everyone else thought I was capable of accomplishing. So we'll see."
Future Olympic plans aside, Ellis plans on completing her sociology major at BYU. Due to the limited number of transfer credits Ellis received, the original computer science student switched majors and may pursue additional education upon graduation as well.
Ellis also plans to stick close to her love of athletics, saying, "I enjoy watching any sport. I like seeing people compete, and how they reactÂŠI would love to coach someday, any sport. It doesn't matter what age."
For now, Ellis will stick to being an integral part of the foundation of the BYU softball program. A common mantra among the players is "Bring it on." Bring on the skepticism, the top-ranked opponents, the other doubts thrown at any first-year program. Ellis not only personifies the new beginning aspect of the team, but the "throw whatever you've got at me" aspect. She's been underestimated before, but as people like Christa Williams can attest, that doesn't last long. This girl came to play.