In the backyard of a house in Sacramento, Calif., the best pitcher in college softball transformed from a troubled benchwarmer to a full-fledged superstar.
Jolene Henderson is 14-1 with a 0.99 ERA this season. Behind her signature changeup and blazing fastball, Henderson has blown by virtually every team she’s faced with ease. The Bears owe much of the credit for their No. 2 national ranking to Henderson’s pitching, trusting in her in almost every game to prevent the opposing team from scoring.
Henderson possesses obvious talent on the mound. But this talent was far from a natural gift.
“When I pitched (at the age of 8), I’d throw balls over the backstop,” Henderson says. “I’d sit in the outfield and I’d play with the grass. I’d make bracelets with all of the flowers.”
Henderson’s softball career, which began at the age of 8, was actually less a product of her desire to play and more of her parents’ willingness to teach her a lesson about commitment.
Yet even after a little pushing, softball still didn’t stick. Henderson despised softball so much that she even devised plots to excuse herself from practices.
“I used to have this thing where I wanted to play with crutches,” Henderson says. “I would always think of trying to put my foot underneath the car so I could get crutches. That was a two-for-one deal. I wouldn’t have to play softball anymore because I have a broken foot and I would have the crutches!”
Although she readily admits she was “terrible,” her parents neglected to dismiss her early blunders as a lack of ability. They pressed on, assuring that her initial lack of ability did not necessarily dictate permanent failure.
“(My parents) never wanted me to quit,” Henderson said. “They wanted me to keep trying until I got the work ethic in me to become better and when I was better, I started to enjoy it a little more.”
But Henderson’s true ability began to surface when her parents built her and her sister, Danielle, a softball field — in their own backyard.
In the backyard, Jolene would pitch to Danielle for hours, honing her skills behind the house. Nowadays, Henderson blows by hitters as if they were 12 years old. But when Jolene herself was 12, her faceoffs with Danielle were a bit more of a challenge.
“(Danielle) can drop bombs. I throw a lot to her (in the backyard). I can throw inside at her and she’ll it hit over the fence. I’ll throw outside and she’ll hit it. I used to be able to throw a changeup but she can hit that now too.”
The backyard sandlot is no half-hearted attempt at replicating a softball field. The diamond is regulation-size, with 200-foot fences lining the outfield walls, and even a backstop to prevent balls from sliding past. Fences line the infield, and a pond sits in right field.
“When we hit a nice home run ball into the pond, our dogs will go and get it for us,” says Danielle, the Bears’ starting third baseman as a freshman.
One can imagine Jolene pitching to Danielle with the heart and determination she displays when pitching against Stanford or Arizona State. Jolene, who relies on her dirty changeup as an out-pitch, first developed the pitch by messing with her sister on their very field.
“You know how she has a really good changeup? She would toy with me, always throwing changeups to mess with me,” Danielle says. “Once I started hitting her changeups, she got mad, and eventually I couldn’t hit her changeups anymore.”
Day after day, Jolene would challenge the younger protégé, tossing batting practice for hours on end.
“Whenever we had free time, she’d ask if she could go pitch to me,” Danielle says. “She helps me out so much.”
Jolene’s constant practice sessions seem to be paying off for Danielle as well. The younger sister has hit .299 with eight home runs, good for second on the squad.
The elder Henderson has had plenty of dominating individual performances. A 16-strikeout, one-hitter against Texas A&M. A 13-strikeout, two-hitter versus San Jose State. Even a nine-inning, 16-strikeout loss against Hawaii after throwing over 100 pitches the day before.
But Jolene’s favorite moment this year had nothing to do with her own individual merit.
Instead, Henderson referred to the season opener against Tennessee, when her pitching performance was actually one of her least impressive.
“It was big for me because it was the first time I got to play with my sister on the college level,” Henderson said, grinning widely. “I was on-deck when my sister hit a home run. It was really special for me to see my sister do that. I felt very proud.”
Despite winning awards like Pac-12 Pitcher of the Week and being named to the 2012 USA Collegiate Softball Player of the Year Watch List, Henderson still would rather see her sister hit a home run than strike someone out.
When Jolene takes the mound nowadays, no shade of her former little-league career is evident. Henderson displays such poise and confidence that it’s easy to forget how far she has traveled in 12 short years.
If Cal reaches the NCAA Softball Division I Championship, Henderson will be counted on to propel the Bears to victory. The pressure of a national title will rest largely on the strength of her right shoulder.
But as Jolene steps on the mound of ASA Hall of Fame Stadium in Oklahoma City, the mound will still be 43 feet from the plate. The fences will remain 200 feet away from the batter’s box. And with Danielle by her side, she might as well be back in her backyard in Sacramento, hurling changeups by her sister and hoping the ball doesn’t land in the pond.