Former Caledonia High School standout Gracie McCleskey joins her Jones County Junior College softball teammates in a dog pile May 19 after an 18-2 victory against Phoenix College (Ariz.) in the championship game of the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) Division II National title game at Traceway Park in Clinton. Photo by: Jones County Junior College Athletics
May 26, 2018 11:02:22 PM
The idea of being a national champion is still sinking in with Gracie McCleskey.
The former Caledonia High School softball standout knew she was in store for some of the best competition the state of Mississippi had to offer when she signed to play at Jones County Junior College in Ellisville.
But McCleskey had no idea her first season at JCJC would turn into a history-making ride.
Last Saturday, JCJC capped an undefeated five-game run through the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) Division II National tournament with an 18-2 victory against Phoenix College (Ariz.) at Traceway Park in Clinton.
"It is an amazing feeling," McCleskey said earlier this week. "When I wake up it doesn't even seem real."
The run-rule victory helped JCJC (54-3) earn its first national title after finishing as the runner-up three other times. The championship also is the first national title in the sport for a Mississippi Association of Community and Junior College (MACJC) school.
JCJC started the season 33-1 but lost a doubleheader to Itawamba Community College on April 8 in Ellisville. Those were the last setbacks for a program that made history after losing to LSU-Eunice 8-7 last season in the national championship game.
JCJC beat Potomac St. (W. Va.) 13-0, Illinois Central 10-2, LSU-Eunice 8-7, Phoenix 20-1, and Phoenix again to end the season on a 21-game winning streak. Along the way, JCJC claimed its third-straight MACJC and Region 23 titles. JCJC hit 15 home runs in outscoring opponents 69-12 in the national tournament.
McCleskey played a pivotal role in the run to the crown. She 4-for-11 in the five games, including a 3-for-6 performance in two games May 18 with three runs scored and two RBIs. The offensive showing was part of a season that saw McCleskey finish sixth on the team with a .371 batting average, second in stolen bases (25), and third in runs (49). The shortstop turned outfielder also hit five home runs, had 29 RBIs, a .440 on-base percentage, and a .545 slugging percentage in 56 games.
JCJC coach Chris Robinson said he knew McCleskey would be able to run the bases when she arrived on campus. He wasn't sure how she would respond at the bottom of the lineup. It turns out McCleskey was more than a pleasant surprise hitting out of the No. 8 hole for most of the season.
"It was her work ethic and determination," Robinson said. "I don't know if you ever expect a freshman to come in and have immediate success, but she did a phenomenal job offensively. That is a testament to a lot of her work ethic and our hitting coach Katie Durham."
Robinson said McCleskey is versatile enough to drop a bunt down or to hit the ball out of the park. He said he envisions her moving up to the leadoff position next year. But Robinson said McCleskey, who played shortstop at Caledonia High, is going to stay in the outfield.
"I think the sky's the limit for the kid," Robinson said. "She is going to get some looks and offers to go on and play at the next level."
McCleskey said she played outfield on her travel ball teams and figured she would move to the outfield when she arrived at JCJC. She said she doesn't plan to go back to the infield now because she "loves the outfield" now.
"That is where I am supposed to be the whole time," said McCleskey, who doesn't know why she fell in love with the outfield.
McCleskey also credits Durham for helping her overcome some initial struggles in the fall. She said she "soaked up" everything Durham had to teach her and then set out to practice as hard as she could. McCleskey said she planned to have the best attitude if she didn't earn a spot, but she didn't have to worry about that because she quickly settled in and became an instant contributor.
"I knew I didn't have to do it all by myself," McCleskey said. "I knew if I didn't get a hit somebody else would, and I had that confidence in the team. My confidence grew from being with the team. I could just relax and play."
McCleskey admits she did surprise herself a little bit by doing so well in her freshman season. She said her power numbers might have been the most unexpected development because she said she hit only one home run as a member of the Caledonia High teams.
Robinson credits McCleskey for learning how to have a short term memory and to forget failure. He said the term he used with his players is "flush it and move on." He said it took McCleskey time to adjust to that mind-set because she is hard on herself, but he said she took to that attitude once she realized the support system was there.
Robinson said that mentality carried over to the outfield. He said McCleskey "jumped right in" as soon as she learned she would play in the outfield and tried to become the best player she could.
McCleskey already has started the work to getting better for next season. She said the 2018 squad left a high bar for the 2019 team to shoot for, but she said she can't wait to see what JCJC can do in her sophomore season.
"It was great to be a part of," McCleskey said. "I have never been a part of something like that. The chemistry we had was there and everyone had the confidence we could do it. We just had to go out there and play."
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Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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