North Gwinnett’s Kinsley Jennings has plenty of big-game experience in her pitching career in both travel and high school softball. However, the senior right-hander believes the biggest games are yet to come as she and the Bulldogs prepare for their first appearance in the Class AAAAAA state tournament since 2005, which begins Thursday in Columbus. (Staff Photo: David Friedlander)
SUWANEE — North Gwinnett’s Kinsley Jennings has pitched a lot of big games in both her high school and travel softball careers.
After all, the senior right-hander came up big during her travel ball season by throwing a shutout for the Atlanta Vipers in a key game of this past summer’s NSA 16U National Championship tournament, as well as tossing another shutout in the Bulldogs’ 5-0 win over Grayson in Game 3 of that second-round playoff series last week.
However, Jennings admits that when she takes to the circle of one of the fields as the South Commons Softball Complex for the first time when North (27-5) begins play in the Class AAAAAA state tournament Thursday, it will be different from anything she’s experienced before.
“It’s definitely different, but I know we can do it,” Jennings said. “I know we’re (all) going to be nervous.”
Perhaps, but if history in any indicator, Jennings should handle whatever nerves she may feel just fine.
Bulldogs head coach Randy Black certainly has plenty of confidence in her.
“She pitched in the national championship (tournament) game in travel ball this year. So, I think she (is) poised and ready to go for (any) pressure situation,” Black said. “You can’t tell if she’s winning or losing on the mound. Her expression is the same, but the desire is burning inside. She wants to win as much as any kid I’ve ever had play (for me).”
But as big a win as her 2-0 shutout of the Utah Slammers in the ASA Tournament in Sunnyvale, Calif., last summer was, it’s doubtful Jennings wanted a win more, or felt more pressure, than when she took to the circle for the third and deciding game of the Bulldogs’ second-round playoff series against Grayson last Thursday.
After all, North had come up just short of reaching the state tournament in Columbus each of the last seven seasons despite having some of Georgia’s top talent, and it was a do or die situation.
And she has never wanted the ball more.
“I really wanted it,” Jennings said. “(Black) always asks me if I’m ready to go, and I always say, ‘Of course.’ I had a feeling that we were going to make it just because I get these feelings sometimes that we’re going to do great things. The seniors this year really wanted it. There’s always that doubt, but I had a feeling.”
That feeling proved correct, as Jennings came up with perhaps her most clutch outing of the season with a five-hit shutout with two strikeouts and no walks in a 5-0 victory that finally got the Bulldogs over the seemingly-impossible obstacle to Columbus.
She had plenty of help from her offense, which struck for three early runs behind an RBI single from Draven Sonnon and a two-run single from Hannah Harrison, plus a clutch defensive play from outfielder Chase Battle to snuff out a potential Grayson rally in the third.
But it is the help Jennings has received from fellow right-hander Harrison (11-3) that Black believes has been the biggest boost for her this season by not only giving opponents a different look, but also saving her strength and command by limiting her innings.
“We’ve had two pitchers, even way back when we had Jessica Batten. We also had Mary Beth O’Rouke,” Black pointed out. “(Jennings) hasn’t had to (shoulder the whole pitching burden) because Hannah this year has really come well. Last year, Hannah threw well and Alaina (Hall) did early. Not having to throw so many innings (is big).
“I think definitely the way our pitching goes, we’re going to go. If (Jennings) and Hannah are both on, we should do well, or at least be competitive. If they’re struggling, we may be struggling.”
Jennings has done her part to help keep the Bulldogs more than competitive throughout her career.
She earned first-team All-County recognition from the Daily Post after posting a 12-1 record with a save, a 2.12 ERA and 52 strikeouts in 82 2/3 innings while sharing time with Harrison and Hall as a junior last year.
But the USC-Upstate-bound hurler has saved her best for her senior season as she has gone 13-2 with a 1.01 ERA and 61 strikeouts in 97 innings this fall.
She’s also contributed at the plate, where she’s hit .338 with seven home runs and 31 RBIs.
And Black goes back to the experience she gained during with the Atlanta Vipers at last summer’s national championship as being the biggest factor in help her take her game another level.
“I think winning the national tournament really gave her a hunger,” Black said. “She experienced that on her travel (team) level, and she’s brought that energy to the high-school level. We have kids who play high-level (travel ball), and that’s good. But she just seems to be focused, and she’s played in the big game. So, she knows what it’s like.”
Jennings said she feels different about this season, but it’s as much a part of her own relationship with her teammates as it is experience.
“I definitely have changed since last year,” Jennings said. “It’s more emotional (than physical). I think I’ve grown up a little bit, and we all just want (the state title) so much this year.”
Still, after coming up just short each previous year in her career at North, she admits it’s still kind of hard to fathom the opportunity she and the Bulldogs have in front of them.
“It was definitely hard watching (other Region 7-AAAAAA teams) play in games we knew we could’ve played in (the last few years), but things happen for a reason. We’re here now,” Jennings said. “It still hasn’t sunk in. I tell my parents all the time, ‘I still can’t believe we’re going.’”