Jessica Merchant might seem like a typical senior who has learned to deal with the stress of college life by keeping a “no stress policy.” She might find it difficult to leave behind the friends and team she has been a part of for the past four years, but she is one of just 21 college seniors in the country who was drafted to play softball in the Big Leagues. It is not only her outstanding .287 career average and 92 career RBI that caught the scout’s eyes as much as her love and passion for the game itself.
If you asked Merchant five years ago what sport she would be playing during her college career, she probably would have replied basketball, but during her years of playing shortstop for Michigan, she has proven she is a true softball star. The talent and passion for the sport runs through her veins. It stems from her grandfather who played the sport. Both her parents, her three sisters and one of her aunts played for Michigan State. In addition, two of her aunts have played college basketball.
“Sports are what we do,” Merchant said of her family.
Although Merchant has been playing softball her entire life, her passion for basketball still remains. If given the opportunity to choose any other sport to play, she would pick “basketball in a heartbeat.” In fact, her uniform number, 24, was chosen because her aunt Jennifer Ritz wore it when she played as a forward on Michigan State’s basketball team. Other schools looked to recruit Merchant for basketball, but playing softball was a sacrifice she made to be a Wolverine.
“I wouldn’t trade Michigan softball for the world,” Merchant said.
Michigan coach Carol Hutchins tries to tell the players that the softball program at Michigan is bigger than the individuals that make up the team.
“There are only 20 people in the world who can wear the Block ‘M.’ Tradition creates a sense of pride and ties the past to the present,” Hutchins said.
In order to evoke this sense of unity for the team, Hutchins has created some traditions of her own, including a dinner where the seniors cook a meal for the rest of the team. She also started California Day, a day when the team is allowed to wear any type of clothes it wants to practice.
Sports tend to offer many life lessons, and Merchant has successfully caught on to the mentality. According to Hutchins, her most significant improvement has been not letting the weight of expectations become overwhelming.
As a freshman, Merchant started all 61 games at shortstop, the second highest season total for a freshman in Michigan history. As a sophomore, she fielded a perfect 1.000 rate in conference action. Last season, Merchant became the first Michigan shortstop to achieve an All-America honor. While helping her team reach the World Series in Oklahoma.
But not everything is all fun and games for Merchant. While Merchant covered second base in a game against Iowa last year, a base runner rammed into her, and broke her ankle.
“It was really emotional because I thought my season was over,” she said.
Through hard work and dedication, Merchant overcame the challenge with flying colors. She looked to her father, who also successfully conquered serious injuries from a car accident. Merchant knew that her situation could have been worse. Even though she missed a total of five games and played only a majority of two others, she managed to set Michigan’s single-season home run record with 15.
“If people work hard, they can achieve more than they think they can” Merchant said.
Said Hutchins: “I was so impressed with the way Jessica dealt with her injury — more than I thought I would be. She practiced her hardest during that time, and that was when I knew.
“She’s a tough kid, tougher than I ever knew, and we needed her.”
Hutchins firmly declared that she was not surprised at all when she heard that Merchant got drafted into the Big Leagues, because from her enthusiasm for the sport, it is obvious that she loves what she does.
“I don’t know, I just love to go out there and play,” Merchant said.
Said Hutchins: “Something I’ll miss is that she loves the game for what it is. She’s a ballpark rat … The kid wears a smile as soon as she gets on the field. That doesn’t happen to everyone. I’m certain she’ll play on national teams, and they’ll love coaching her.”