Jenna Blanton starts UK career with memorable catch but she is happy just to be back playing
Published 11:08 am Friday, February 24, 2023
Jenna Blanton had not played in a game in two years when she returned to the field in a big way in Kentucky softball’s season-opening 14-4 win over St. John’s.
She had an elbow injury her senior year in high school that limited her to hitting but no fielding. She spent her freshman season at Kentucky in 2022 as a redshirt after undergoing Tommy John surgery after her final high school season to repair ligament damage in her elbow.
So what did she do back as a full-time player in the first game in a regular-season game? She went 3-for-3 at the plate and drove in two runs. In center field, she had a sensational home run-robbing catch that saved three runs.
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“It was an amazing feeling (to make that catch). The whole game I just focused on playing my game and doing what I have done my whole life,” Blanton said. “It was kind of cool that (catch) was the play that got me out there, and I hope I can build on that.”
She said that only hitting as a high school senior and not playing at all as a true college freshman were both difficult in their own way.
“I think last year was more mentally tough on me. Just having to watch was hard,” she said. “But I do think it helped me learn the ropes of college softball. Renee (Abernathy) helped me a lot last year. I practiced with her the majority of the time. She helped me stay focused, and I still talk to her today to get her support because she’s done all this.”
Only hitting her senior year also subtly benefited her.
She hit .500 as an eighth-grader and stole 15 bases for her state runner-up Forest School in Chapel Hill (Tenn.). As a freshman, she hit .543 with 52 runs scored and 11 steals. She moved from center field to shortstop for her sophomore season when she hit .418 for her state championship team and had scored 52 and stole 36 bases. Her junior season was stopped after three games due to COVID.
Blanton also had a successful AAU career with Platinum Fury that won a national championship in 2015 and a Junior Olympic Cup title, among other top finishes.
Yet Blanton, a left-handed hitter, says she was never confident in her hitting ability no matter what her numbers showed.
“I was always pretty confident in my defensive ability and range,” Blanton said. “I struggled with my hitting and focused on that my senior year. I just kind of doubt myself sometimes in the (batter’s) box. I have grown as a hitter and learned how to make myself more confident. I struggled with it, but I have gradually built my confidence.”
Moving back to the outfield this season is not a problem for Blanton. She played outfield in travel ball and says she always preferred that over shortstop.
“Going to the outfield can be a hard transition because the ball comes off the bat differently, but I am confident in my defense,” she said.
Blanton is from a small town, small school and was the first female Southeastern Conference signee from her school in any sport. She does not view that as pressure because she knows hometown fans and friends want her to succeed.
“They are watching me and rooting for me,” she said. “I do see how that could be intimidating, but I just don’t look at it that way.”
Growing up in Tennessee, she always wanted to play SEC softball. One reason she gave up basketball her freshman year to concentrate on softball. When she visited UK, she fell in love with the campus, coaching staff and players.
“The coaches were very personable and I could tell they wanted the best for me in the classroom and real world as well as softball,” Blanton said.
Her family members were Vanderbilt fans, but Vandy does not have a softball team so that “made” her go to Tennessee games.
“But I was not a big die-hard Vol fan,” Blanton said.
Once softball ends, she plans to be a high school math teacher — “math has always been easy for me.” Her mother and other family members are teachers and she “always knew” she wanted to be a teacher, too.
Her faith is also another important part of her life.
“I have gone through a lot. I have learned through my trials to depend on God to get me through rough times in life,” Blanton said. “Softball-wise, I remember no matter what I do on the field that I am valuable as a person. Even if I do not do well in a game, I know at the end of the day there is more to life.
“I go 100 percent on the field but I have more to fall back on than just stats and how I do on the field. It kind of takes a lot to get me upset and mad. I just generally enjoy life and what I am doing.”
She has started seven of UK’s eight games this season and is hitting .389 with six runs scored and three RBIs.