By Mark Salay, Daily Nexus
The UCSB softball team enters its final series of the season this weekend with a chance of winning the Big West for the first time in the program's history. There is no doubt that the Gauchos would not be in this position if not for the stellar play of junior shortstop Keilani Jennings.
Appearing in every game this season on her way to leading the team in doubles, walks and home runs, the Newbury Park native always expected to play softball collegiately. What she did not expect were the many hurdles she had to overcome once her dream to step onto the field for the Gauchos became a reality.
"Coming in my freshman year, it was completely different," Jennings said. "The game was faster [in college]. Everyone was more competitive and it was more serious."
A part of Head Coach Brie Galicinao's first recruiting class, it was Jennings' athleticism and strong arm that got the attention of Galicinao.
"I saw her at one of the summer showpiece tournaments; I wasn't planning to go meet her," Galicinao said. "I went out and it so happened I was sitting in between two fields and she was playing on one and she caught my eye."
The decision for Jennings to attend UCSB was an easy choice for her, as she immediately fell in love with the campus upon her first visit and saw it as the perfect combination of scenery and education.
"I picked UCSB when I went on my recruiting visit," Jennings said. "The second I got to campus I just got that vibe that I knew where I wanted to go — I loved the location and loved the academic aspect of it. It was just a feeling I guess."
Jennings came into the program as a freshman ready to make an immediate impact, starting the first nine games of her career. However, Jennings suffered a devastating setback when she broke her leg, sidelining her for the rest of the season.
"That was literally the first time I've ever been injured; I knew I wasn't going to be able to play for the rest of the year," Jennings said. "The second it happened I knew I broke my leg. It was definitely scary because I heard it crack and I was kind of in shock."
Despite suffering the season-ending injury, Jennings redshirted and returned the next year to lead the team in home runs and was one of three Gauchos to play in every single game, fulfilling the potential that was realized from her the year before.
Building on her strong sophomore campaign, Jennings began the 2011 season by playing in 41 games and leading the team in batting average, slugging percentage and home runs. All was going according to schedule until injury struck Jennings once again. This time, a torn ACL sidelined her with another season-ending injury.
"My second injury last year was harder; it was a different kind of feeling when you tear your ACL but I knew something was wrong because I wasn't able to get up," Jennings said. "It was really hard because your role as a teammate changes more as a supporter rather than actually being able to affect what's going on on the field."
Yet, despite suffering another devastating injury, Jennings was determined to come back and play for the Gauchos in her final two seasons of eligibility.
"I knew I would be able to come back," Jennings said. "I wanted it bad enough to be able to come back and play. It's the sport I love to play."
Now in her fourth year as a Gaucho, Jennings has not showed any signs of slowing down, playing a huge part in the run the team has made this season — a run that has UCSB within reach of a Big West title.
"She's come back from a lot; she's been working hard and putting in the work necessary to come back," Galicinao said. "Hitting in the fourth spot is challenging and she still has success hitting from that spot."
Because of her redshirt status, Jennings has the opportunity of becoming one of the greatest hitters in UCSB history before she leaves. Quickly climbing the record books, she currently ranks fourth overall for most home runs with 21, and has cracked the top 10 in doubles and runs batted in. However, even with a long list of statistical accolades to her name, Jennings still remains focused on the team goal of winning the Big West.
"I'm not one to focus on stats," Jennings said. "Coming into the season, obviously the big team goal is to be Big West champs. Individually, I just came in basically just wanting to play softball. I was mainly there for the team goal and coming in and focusing on everything little by little."
With the Big West Championship to be determined in the final weekend of the season, the Gauchos hope to make program history. But, looking ahead to next season, there is also reason for optimism — as long as Jennings is penciled into the lineup.