For the second straight year, Jessica Ricks won the Telegram’s All-Area Batter of the Year as the best hitter in the area.
During her senior season, she reached base more than six out of every 10 plate appearances and raised her batting average to .553. Her 1.367 OPS was far past great. She secured her sought-after Division I scholarship to Appalachian State before the season.
While softball is comprised of many individual battles within a team game, the hyper-competitive Ricks won’t characterize her senior season as a success.
Her team, which surprised its way to a home playoffs game in 2013, spent the 2014 season putting out small fires and missed the playoffs for the first time in more than a decade.
No matter how well she played personally, her feelings are decided entirely by the final score.
“There have been many car rides home where she has been so mad, and it’s like, why are you mad?” Jessica’s mother, Wendy Ricks, said. “She’ll go 4-for-4 and say, ‘Who cares? We didn’t win.’”
The Knights returned nearly every key piece from their 2013 team, which included ace Shelby Godwin, a powerful top five and reliable starters at key positions like catcher and shortstop. Northern Nash was the early favorite to win the Big East Conference.
From the outset, almost nothing went to plan. Shortstop Suzie Sykes was forced to miss the entire year with a back injury. Bad weather in the winter and early spring sabotaged early season preparations, and young players on whom the Knights were counting weren’t ready. Before its first game, Northern Nash had only two outdoor practices.
“And one of them we shouldn’t have been out there because the field was too wet,” Northern Nash coach Greg Tharrington said.
And for whatever reason, the team didn’t gel as it had in the past year. The losses piled up in the early season, and everybody on the Knights was frustrated. Nobody more so than their center fielder.
“I thought everything would be like it was last year and then some,” Ricks said. “I had a lot of silent moments to myself in the dugout.”
After being beaten soundly in their conference opener, the Knights recovered to win four of five games, and the team looked as if it still would be a contender.
Halfway through the Big East Conference schedule, Northern Nash was 3-2 and still a player for the league title.
Then the Knights lost three straight, and all hopes of a home playoffs game were crushed. With a loss in the opening round of the Big East Tournament, the Knights’ year came to end before the playoffs.
For Ricks, something happened in the process. She never hid her displeasure when the team wasn’t playing well, especially in the beginning of the season. After a few long talks with her father, Ricks said she learned that “being positive is everything.” Anger after losses wasn’t helping, Ricks said, so why bother with it?
“Midway through the season, I tried to take that approach,” Ricks said. “Instead of being so competitive, it was, this is what we got, let’s make the best of it. These girls are doing what they can and I’m doing what I can. If it doesn’t work out, you can’t be so upset about it.”
Even though this season didn’t go Ricks’ way from a winning standpoint, she said she learned important lessons from a frustrating year.
And from Ricks, there is something younger players should learn, Tharrington said. Ricks is the only sophomore he has made a captain, and it was because of her dedication to improving.
“I don’t want (her career) to be remembered by the last year,” Tharrington said. “If younger players work as hard as she worked, they’d be happy with themselves. Is she the best player we’ve ever had? No, but she was the hardest worker. She didn’t have the most natural ability, but she worked hard to get to the point were she’s at now. That says something.”
Nick Piotrowicz can be reached at 407-9952 or npiotrowicz @rmtelegram.com