SOFTBALL BATTERY REALIZES 10-YEAR PLAYING CAREER NEARS THE END
May 19, 2012
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – Seniors Chelsea Jones and Erica Duke were presented with Sterling Silver ring boxes at Senior Day before The University of Tennessee at Martin played Eastern Illinois at Bettye Giles Field. The boxes were a practical gift for the two seniors who accumulated championship rings as freshmen, sophomores and now as they play in their second NCAA Regional Tournament.
This is a story of two teammates who not only play college softball together, but two teammates who grew up together, played middle school, high school, and summer softball together. And now as the two near the end of the softball playing careers, plans are under way for the duo to teach and coach together.
Duke remembers the first time she caught Jones. “We were in Shelbyville, Tenn., at a church and I was trying out for the travel team. I remember Chelsea could throw all the pitches and she had a good fast ball … Of course, I made the team.”
In the fall, the two girls went their separate way, but it was softball that quickly reunited them. Duke was at East Tullahoma Middle and Jones was at West Tullahoma Middle. For two years, Duke and Jones played on the middle schools combined softball team. Duke was the catcher and Jones was the pitcher.
Duke and Jones made the transition to Tullahoma High School with ease. Jones was quietly racking up the accolades and caught the college coaches’ attention. Duke wasn’t vocal, she let her bat speak for her.
Enter UT Martin head coach Donley Canary. “I was watching the (Murfreesboro) Firebirds play when I first started recruiting Chelsea (Jones) and (Erica) Duke,” Canary said.
While Jones landed a scholarship offer from Canary and UT Martin, Duke’s path to UT Martin wasn’t as easy. “I was hard to get here (UT Martin),” Duke said. “I had a goal. I wanted to go to the same school as Chelsea, but I knew I would have to work hard because it would be difficult to get recruited to the same school.”
Jones and Duke didn’t waste any time finding success at UT Martin. As freshmen, the two were a part of a team that won its first Ohio Valley Conference tournament and advanced to the NCAA Regional in Louisville. The Skyhawks drew perennial power Arizona and then had to play Purdue.
Jones made 19 appearances as a true freshman. She finished the year with a 7-7 record and a 2.67 ERA. Duke saw action in 15 games.
In 2010, Jones made 13 appearances and sported a 5-4 worksheet with a 2.86 ERA. Once again, Duke saw limited playing time. Regardless, UT Martin won its first OVC regular season title and earned the right to host the postseason tournament.
Both Duke and Jones saw increased playing time in 2011. Jones made 40 appearances in the circle and recorded 180 strikeouts to go with her 2.24 ERA. Duke played in 31 games and stared in two dozen. The Skyhawks finished in the top half of the OVC standings, but came up short in the postseason tournament.
“You have to be hungry to play softball at this level,” Canary said. “This is not glamorous. The girls have practice, they travel on a bus wherever we go and they always have to do their homework and study.”
Duke, Jones and Jenny Bain are the only three seniors on this year’s roster and all three players have exceeded Canary’s expectations. Duke has started and played in 56 games. She hit a key home run in the OVC Championship game against Tennessee Tech.
Jones earned the OVC’s Pitcher of the Year honor and rewrote the UT Martin career record book.
“I don’t keep up with stats,” Jones said. “I don’t have the mental capability of worrying about numbers such as strikeouts. I watch my spots, and if I don’t hit them it bothers me.”
Jones entered the NCAA Regional game against No. 2 Alabama with 194 strikeouts, a 28-8 record and 32 complete games.
“If the strikeouts help us win games, then that is great with me,” Jones said. “The strikeouts are my way of doing my part. Rather than take any of the credit for her ominous stats, Jones gives the credit to her battery mate – Duke.
“I don’t know where I would be without Erica (Duke),” Jones said.
Staying optimistic about their fate in the NCAA Regional, both Duke and Jones realize their 10-year playing careers are near the end and that last spot in the ring box will soon be filled.
“We have thought about the end,” Duke said. “Realistically we are just getting started said the always optimistic catcher. “We are going to coach together.”
“Great is the word, not bittersweet,” Jones said when asked about the way her senior campaign was ending.