March 6, 2003
By Elliott Finebloom FSU Sports Information
Division I athletes don’t ever want to be 21st at anything but when you talk to Seminole junior Jessica van der Linden, she wouldn’t mind being 21st. She doesn’t want to be the 21st-best pitcher in the country or the 21st-best center fielder but to be the 21st All-American in FSU history- that she would have no problem with.
“I’m really not the type of person that sets goals. I don’t know if that is a bad thing or not but the one personal goal I had when I came to Florida State was to be an All-American by the time I graduated,” said van der Linden. “That is something I would love to achieve. It is probably the only personal goal that I would ever want. It is such a special thing to be able to say that you are an All-American.”
The junior from Cerritos, CA is well on her way to accomplishing that goal and a lot more for the 14th-ranked Seminoles. In her first season at FSU she was named the Atlantic Coast Conference’s Rookie of the Year. After just two year’s of ACC play, she was named one of the conference’s top 50 all time players. Now in her third season, she is doing things that no player in the previous 24 years of FSU softball has ever done.
“I think this may be the best start a player has ever had in my 25 years here,” said head coach JoAnne Graf. “Brandi (Stuart) has had some great starts. We’ve had other great players who had good starts but for Jessica to be hitting over .550 22 games into a season is just incredible. I hope she keeps going and saves some of that for the stretch run.”
Through 22 games this season van der Linden’s numbers are unprecedented. The pitcher/outfielder is hitting .554, slugging .679, on base 67% of the time and she has already amassed 14 RBIs. While it is early, she is currently hitting nearly 25 percentage points higher than last year’s NCAA batting champion Stacey Nuveman from UCLA.
Coming into the 2003 season, van der Linden was a career .324 hitter, she slugged .441 and was averaging an RBI every two games. While she has improved on her numbers every year since arriving in Tallahassee, the jump from her sophomore to junior season is shocking. This year she is hitting 230 percentage points higher than last year, slugging 215 percentage points higher and her on base percentage has increased by 232 percentage points.
“I really don’t know what I am doing. Don’t get me wrong, I am not complaining,” said van der Linden. “I am just thankful that I am healthy and that I am helping this team. I am loving it right now. I don’t know any player who isn’t happy when they are having success. As long as I am contributing to our success, I am happy.
“I don’t go into each season looking to improve on my numbers. I have never said to myself that I have to do better than last year. I never dwell on what I have done. I like to focus on what I am going to do. I’d rather not focus on the numbers and just take things one pitch at a time.”
What makes van der Linden’s success even more incredible is the fact that the coaches ask so much of her. She isn’t afforded the luxury of being able to just concentrate on hitting or playing the outfield. Jessica is a triple threat and she has to work at two positions on top of getting her reps in at the plate.
In a typical doubleheader she will start in center field. By the time FSU hits in the sixth inning she will start warming up in the bullpen. If the Tribe has a comfortable lead, she can come out of the game but if the game is close, she gets her pitches in and then heads back to the outfield. When game two starts, you’ll find her in the circle and she isn’t going to get a rest at the plate either. Not when she is hitting .556.
She wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I love it. It is hard but I can’t complain about being involved in every game,” said Jessica with a smile. “Thankfully I have remained healthy enough to do all three. I love seeing the game from all the different aspects.”
“She has always pitched, hit and played the outfield so it isn’t anything new for Jess,” said Graf. “Other players who haven’t done that their whole career would probably struggle with that much being asked of them. It hasn’t been an adjustment for her. She has handled it so well.”
As much as she loves pitching, playing the outfield and hitting, van der Linden would struggle if she had to choose just one of the three endeavors.
“Nobody has ever asked me to choose just one of those three things. That is so hard,” she said. “I would probably pitch. For me, playing in the outfield is all fun. Hitting is fun most of the time but pitching has an added element. I have been pitching my whole life and I couldn’t picture playing without pitching.”
Jessica has never been one to crave the spotlight and she’s not inside the circle in an attempt to get attention. What she loves about pitching is being able to have some control over the outcome of a game. She thrives on that pressure.
“I love pitching. There is less pressure in the outfield but I do love the responsibility that comes with being on the mound,” said Jessica. “You have so much control over the outcome of the game and you set the momentum.
“When I pitch I take a lot of things on myself. Every walk and bad pitch I put on me. There are a lot of ‘what ifs’ involved with the position. One pitch can change everything you have done all game.”
No player on the field has more of an opportunity to win a game or lose a game single-handedly than the pitcher. While that can be exhilarating it also seems like it would be a lot to handle. It seems like it could be lonely at times inside the circle but Jessica doesn’t feel that way.
“I never picture being a pitcher as being lonely,” said Jessica. “All of my teammates are out there and I can hear them encouraging me. My catchers are always there to calm me down also. I don’t feel lonely at all. I know my team is always behind me to back me up.”
That’s especially true for Jessica in the tough times. For example, she recalled FSU’s game with Mississippi State this year. The southpaw was having one of her best outings of the season against a team that possessed more firepower than anyone the Tribe had seen up to that point. The Bulldogs had a line-up that featured six starters hitting over .300 but Jessica hadn’t allowed a single run through five innings. In the top of the sixth, Mississippi State used an FSU error to avoid a double play leaving two runners on for the Bulldog’s top hitter. Iyhia McMichael took van der Linden yard and FSU lost 3-1
“Look at the Mississippi State game. I made one mistake and we lost the game. You just can’t do that on the pitcher’s mound,” recalled Jessica. “My teammates were there for me but that is on me.”
As much as she prides herself on her play in the outfield or the way she is excelling at the plate, Jessica is hardest on herself when it comes to pitching. As happy as she is with her performance at the plate in 2003, she is equally disappointed with her pitching.
“It is so frustrating to me that I haven’t been at my best this year on the mound but I am working on that and feel that I have turned a corner,” said Jessica. “I need to do so much better than I am.”
It is hard to imagine Jessica doing much better than she already is. Last year she posted a 1.43 ERA with 175 strikeouts and 69 walks in 175 innings. This season her ERA is a little higher at 1.70 but she already has 72 strikeouts and has given up just 19 walks in 62 innings.
“I want my ERA under 1.00 and I want to lower my number of walks,” she said. “I don’t care about strikeouts, complete games or shutouts. I just want to win. Even if a team got a ton of hits off me but we won I would be happy. Well that isn’t entirely true. I would be happy we won but I would be upset that I didn’t do my job.”
That is just the way Jessica is when it comes to pitching. One thing that has bothered her about her pitching this season is her 5-3 record. She is already half way to the six losses she had all of last season. One of the main reasons for that is the run support she has received in her games. Van der Linden usually gets the second start of the day and for some reason FSU just isn’t scoring as many runs in those games. In the opening games of doubleheaders, FSU is scoring more than seven runs a game but in game two that total drops to below four.
“We need to stop that trend,” said Jessica with a chuckle. “You can look at it two ways and I choose to look at it as a way of making me a better pitcher. The more times I pitch in close games and pressure situations, the more comfortable I am going to get. If we go to the World Series again, it isn’t likely we are going to be up 8-0 on anyone, I would love that but it just doesn’t happen. I look at it as it is preparing me for those types of pressure situations.”
Funny she should bring up the World Series considering her performance in FSU’s semi-final against defending National Champion Arizona was probably one of the shining moments of the Californian’s two-year career. The Seminoles hadn’t been to the Final Four of a WCWS since 1990 but when they went looking for the program’s first-ever finals berth Jessica got the call. It was her first start in the World Series and she was going up against one of the two dynasties in the sport.
The sophomore went out and pitched six stellar innings while allowing just one earned run. She didn’t figure in the decision of the 11 inning game but it was a signature performance in front of the largest crowd she ever played in front of and a national television audience on ESPN2.
“When I look at the tape, the thing that sticks out to me is that I kept my composure on the mound, which is so surprising considering how freaked out I was before the game,” she remembered. “I didn’t even pitch my best and I gave up just one earned run versus Arizona. It gave me such a huge confidence boost. When we face them at the KIA Klassic in Fullerton next week, I want a rematch. I want to see where I am at compared to last year.”
Her composure inside the circle hasn’t gone unnoticed by her teammates either. Sophomore Casey Hunter is one of three pitchers on the Seminole staff this year and when you ask her about Jessica, composure is the first thing that comes to her mind.
“I admire how calm she always remains. No matter how tough the situation, she always seems so composed. If she is upset, you’d never be able to tell,” said Hunter.
Her experience in Oklahoma City did more than give her confidence that she could pitch against anyone; it sparked a fire in Jessica. Now that she has had a taste of the WCWS she wants more.
“Whenever we went to Nationals with travel ball or a big tournament, it always seemed just like another day at the park to me. The World Series was completely different,” recalls Jessica. “It had such a different feeling. The atmosphere was amazing. I want to get that back. I want another opportunity to play in front of a crowd like that. It was a special time.”
If she and her Seminole teammates are able to return to the World Series, Jessica might get the chance to follow in teammate Brandi Stuart’s footsteps. The senior second baseman knows what it is like to be at the WCWS banquet getting ready to play at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium the next day and hear your name called out in front of the whole softball world at the All-American Award ceremony. Jessica remembers that night well.
“I was so proud of her for getting that honor because she deserved it. It was great to see her hard work get recognized,” said Jessica. “It showed me the level that I needed to take my game to if I want to get there also. It is a whole different level of play and it gave me a glimpse of what I need to do to reach that goal.”
The two Cerritos High School teammates are feeding off one another more than ever this year. Last season they combined to hit .363 and slug .553. Together they accounted for 153 hits, 23 doubles, 12 triples, 11 home runs, 80 RBIs, 233 total bases and 86 walks. No tandem in 24 years of Florida State softball combined for more total bases and walks or slugged for a higher percentage than the duo from Cerritos did. That is nothing compared to what they are doing in 2003.
Just 22 games into the season, Jessica and Brandi have combined to hit .483 and they are slugging .703. They have combined for 57 hits, 12 doubles, 27 RBIs and already have 39 walks.
“I think we take pressure off each other. For me, ever since we have been playing together I know she’ll step up if I’m having a bad day and I would do the same for her,” said Brandi. “It is really nice to have that familiarity with someone who knows your strengths and weaknesses and can help you out.”
While Jessica might be having an amazing year while flying under the radar on the east coast, she is going to be on an even bigger stage the next two weeks. It starts at this weekend’s Seminole Invitational with three 2002 College World Series teams and six teams that played in NCAA Regionals last year. Then she returns to California for one of the top tournaments in the nation when FSU travels to the KIA Klassic at Cal State Fullerton.
“That is going to be a big challenge for me and our whole team,” she said with a gleam in her eye. “It is another opportunity for this team to get some great exposure versus some of the nation’s best teams. The competition level is so high. I am really looking forward to it.”
As much as it is a chance for her to introduce herself to the softball world, it is always about the team goals with Jessica and getting wins. Complete games and shutouts don’t mean anything to her if the team gets the win.
“Jess is such a competitor. She wants to perform well but she is driven by winning,” said Graf. “She wants the team to succeed and she is willing to do whatever is asked of her to help this team get wins. She also enjoys the game so much. She is the kind of kid that looks so serious and all of a sudden a smile breaks out on her face and you know she is having fun.”
“I think like any player I want to succeed. I want to do well and help my team and that is about all I think of,” she said. “I just go try to go out and have fun but I want to win. Winning is always a goal because I hate to lose. I have already had some great experiences and met some wonderful people so a lot of the things I came into to college wanting to do I have done.”
She has accomplished a lot in two years but not everything. Lucky for FSU the junior still has two years to get the Seminoles back to another World Series and to chase after that coveted All-American honor. If she is able to extend her torrid start into April and May, All-American honors will be a lock.