April 23, 2004
By Elliott Finebloom
FSU Sports Information
Jessica van der Linden entered the 2004 season with a target on her back that comes along with NFCA first team All-American status. She was a marked player because she was a top 10 finalist for USA Softball’s Collegiate Player of the Year. She had to deal with all the details that come with her impending July wedding to FSU football star Michael Boulware. She also had to graduate from college with a communications degree while being counted on to lead FSU to its second College World Series in the last three years. You know, all the typical stuff.
“It really hasn’t been so bad. Planning a wedding during the season is a little different but my school load wasn’t nearly as heavy this semester,” said van der Linden. “The wedding stuff really took the place, as far as a time commitment, that used to be filled with school work. There are always days where you are close to a mental breakdown but I haven’t had to deal with any more than any other student-athlete in America.”
“I am very pleased with the way she has handled all of the potential distractions. There is a lot going on in her life and I could understand how easily she could get distracted by focusing on some other things,” said head coach Dr. JoAnne Graf. “I am so pleased in the way she has handled herself and that when she steps on the field she is able to put it all aside, think about softball and get her job done. She waits until she gets off the field to worry about everything else. That has been a pleasant surprise this year.”
Repeating as an All-America is tough enough without the distractions that van der Linden has to deal with everyday. Of Florida State’s four previous first team All-America’s, two were named to the first team before their senior season and neither of those players reached that level again. Since 2000 no FSU All-American has followed up a first or second team All-America honor with an equal or better honor the next year. Capturing first team All-America honors in back-to-back season has been done by just 47 players in 20 years and never by an FSU player.
“Being named a first team All-American in back-to-back seasons would be awesome,” said van der Linden. “It would be a huge honor and a true credit to my teammates.”
van der Linden is making her case to be the 48th player to do just that. At the plate she has already established new career highs for home runs (2) and RBIs (41) and she is close to setting new career highs for runs scored, triples and steals. Her fielding percentage is a perfect 1.000 for the first time in her career and she is just ten hits away from equaling her hit total from her All-America season is 2003.
The utility player is having her best season ever in the circle as well. Last year she went 18-5 with a 1.07 ERA, eight shutouts, 48 walks and 246 strikeouts. She is blowing those numbers away in 2004. The Cerritos, CA native has already set new career highs for wins (20), strikeouts (264), complete games (21), shutouts (13) and saves (2). She is currently fourth in the nation in ERA, sixth in the nation in strikeouts and 13th in the nation in wins.
With her success in 2004, van der Linden has found herself back in a familiar position when it comes to one national award. For the second straight year the senior is a top 25 finalist for USA Softball’s Collegiate Player of the Year award and she is one of just eight players to make the top 25 the last two seasons. Although she doesn’t get caught up in individual honors, this award would mean a lot to her.
“Winning USA Softball Player of the Year is something I am striving for. It is a goal of mine and something I set out to try and achieve,” said van der Linden. “I always want to set my standards high and see if I can reach them. As far as softball goes, you can’t set your standards much higher than player of the year. If I can even get one step further than last year, that would be a big accomplishment for me.”
Whether or not she wins the most prestigious individual award in college softball, van der Linden’s legacy at Florida State is secure. This year she became just the second Seminole ever to post four consecutive 30+ RBI seasons. She is only the fifth FSU pitcher ever to record 200+ strikeouts in back-to-back seasons and just the second Tribe hurler with more than 700 career K’s and a 200 strikeout season. The Cerritos, CA already owns the career record for doubles and it is just a matter of games before she becomes FSU’s all-time RBI and walks leader as well. For the second straight year no player in America has a lower ERA and higher batting average than van der Linden.
This season she became the only two-time national player of the week in school history when she swept the weekly honors from both the NFCA and USA Softball. van der Linden is FSU’s career leader for no-hitters and she became the first Seminole pitcher in more than a decade to throw two ho hitters in the same week. She has two perfect games in her career and her eight no hitters are more than FSU totaled in the six years before she arrived in Tallahassee. She will finish on the career record lists for games played, at bats, runs, hits, doubles, triples, RBI, total bases, walks and batting average as far as offense goes. Inside the circle she will show up on the career record lists for games, innings, wins and strikeouts.
“The only time I ever look at stats or records is when somebody reads about it and says something to me. I don’t chart where I am on career lists or single season record lists,” said van der Linden. “Whenever I hear about a record I think it is pretty cool but it isn’t what motivates me.
“I came here hoping to make an impact on this program but when somebody tells me I am the all-time leader in a category or in the top five in these categories, I never expected to make that kind of impact.”
There could probably be a lengthy debate as to whether or not van der Linden is the greatest Seminole softball player ever but there is no doubting she ranks right up there with the best including fellow Cerritos High teammate Brandi Stuart, Shamalene Wilson, Danielle Cox and Darby Cottle. No player in 21 years of FSU softball ever finished her career on more career leader lists than van der Linden has. If she isn’t the greatest ever, she is easily the most versatile.
“Jessica is one of the best players ever to play here because she is so versatile and can do so many things,” said Graf. “I don’t think we have ever had anyone as dominant pitching, hitting and playing the outfield. That is what makes her unique. She does everything so well. She is also a great competitor who has a lot of heart. She isn’t that big when it comes to stature but she gives you everything she has every time she plays and that makes her great.”
“I always loved being able to do more than one thing on the field. Growing up I played every position,” remembers van der Linden. “I am used to playing everywhere. I never focused on just one position.”
One of the most overlooked facets of Jessica’s remarkable career is that she never leaves the field. Even the greatest pitchers of all-time don’t pitch every game so they get plenty of off days and when they do pitch a large majority don’t hit. Not only does van der Linden hit when she pitches, when she isn’t pitching she plays centerfield. In a typical doubleheader she doesn’t even get a break when the team’s batting and she not up. She is usually starting to throw in the bullpen to get ready to start the second game. It is amazing that she hasn’t completely broken down as of yet. What is even more amazing is that her numbers keep getting better.
For the first time in her career, van der Linden reached the 20-win plateau this season, which was a special mark. What made the feat even more amazing is that she increased her win total for the fourth straight season. Only one other pitcher in FSU’s tradition-rich history has ever increased her victory total all four years at Florida State. Her strikeouts have gone up every single season as well.
“I never let myself think about the fact I never leave the field because I love what I am doing,” said van der Linden. “If I thought about it, I guess it would seem kind of difficult. I never wanted to use the fact that I am on the field so much as an excuse for anything. I am used to it now.
“It is a little surprising that my body hasn’t given out on me yet. I don’t know why I have been able to avoid an inevitable wearing down but I am glad it hasn’t happened.”
With just 10 games left in the regular season, van der Linden’s body won’t have to hold up much longer as her record-breaking career is almost over. The senior was drafted by Arizona in the new National Pro Fastpitch league but she won’t be playing pro ball. Jessica always knew that her final college game would be the final game of her career.
“I always knew I would stop playing softball when my college career ended,” said van der Linden. “That was before the marriage I knew that. I started playing to have fun and then softball brought me here to get a great education. I am appreciative of what this sport has given me but I always knew it would come to an end this year.”
Jessica didn’t entirely close the door though as there is one softball dream she has yet to fulfill.
“If USA Softball was to call me, you never know.”
Before her career does come to an end, van der Linden knows there is some unfinished business to take care of and that starts this Saturday with a North Carolina team that is sitting in second place in the ACC. When Jessica steps out into center field at noon to face the Tar Heels she will have to deal with another distraction as fianc? Michael will be sitting by his phone as the NFL draft begins. According to most experts Boulware will go somewhere in the second round so the newlyweds future will be decided at some point late Saturday.
“I will need to focus a little more than usual on the field Saturday while the draft is going on,” said van der Linden. “Someone is going to be watching ESPN for me and my cell phone will be with one of our staff members waiting for the call. It would be worse if I had no way of being contacted. That would be too stressful. Being worried and stressed out about it isn’t going to change his draft position so I am not going to do that.
“I think it is so awesome that I am going to find out where I live Saturday. I hope it is somewhere warm but anywhere would be great. I’ll adjust.”
Jessica has adjusted to every challenge she has met so far so there is no reason to believe she won’t be able to adjust to this next phase in her life as well.