Freshman electrifies GVSU in leadoff spot
Lenza plays second, bats first and teams up with Taylor to form potent 1-2 punch
Peanut butter and jelly, spaghetti and meatballs, Butch and Sundance, ballparks and hotdogs, bat and ball, ‘Sweet’ Lou Whitaker and Alan Trammel; some things are better in pairs. A truth that every skipper – from Sparky Anderson to Jonas Grumby to Jim Leyland to Margie Wright to Mike Candrea – worth his or her salt is privy to.
A truth that Grand Valley State University softball skipper of 870 career wins and 24 years, coach Doug ‘Doc’ Woods, was forced to come to terms with this season when, for the first time in four years, his team began its campaign without the services of now graduated second baseman Kayleigh Bertram and leadoff hitter Nellie Kosola.
“That’s all just part of the game,” Woods said. “Players come and go – I’ve seen a lot of them come through during my time here – and for every hole left vacant, there’s an opportunity for someone new to fill it.”
Bertram finished her career at GVSU fourth in career doubles (43), sixth in home runs (20), eighth in total bases (321), ninth in at-bats (651), hits (216), runs (125), and RBI (121). She started 54 games at second for the Laker squad that finished third in the nation in 2013 and paced the center of the infield with 120 put-outs, 61 assists, a .968 fielding percentage, four double-plays and only six errors.
Kosola also ranks in a variety of GVSU single-season and career record boards, as well as several GLIAC lists. She is third in GLIAC history in career triples (20), fifth in runs scored (172), seventh in hits (271) and at-bats (697), and ninth in batting average (.389). Her 57 runs scored in 2013 are tied for ninth most in a single season in GLIAC history, and in many terms, she’s the finest leadoff batter the Lakers have ever known.
To replace just one would be daunting task for anyone, let alone a freshman, but indirectly, that’s precisely what incomer Jenna Lenza has been tasked to do. And just like a pair of BOGO shoes purchased at Payless, through the first 15 games of spring play, Lenza has worn and filled both roles left to her without missing a step.
“I played second for many years and a lot of travel ball in the summer, so I feel like I had a lot of experience coming in,” Lenza said. “Of course I was nervous, especially in my first games, but I think I was ready.”
Lenza didn’t waste any time to prove it, either. In her first official collegiate at-bat, she knocked out a solo home run to left field. The lead didn’t last and GVSU dropped the decision 6-5 to Winona State University, although she finished her first career start 4-for-4 from the plate with an RBI and three runs scored.
In her young career that has spanned a four-game trip to Chicago, an 11-game spring break trip in Florida and 53 plate appearances, Lenza is fourth on the team in RBI (12) and on-base percentage (.441), third in batting average (.415) and total bases (36), tied for third in home runs (2), second in hits (22) and slugging percentage (.679), tied for second in steals (one swipe on one attempt) and leads all Lakers with 19 runs scored.
The sample size of 15 games is slight, but extrapolated to 200 at-bats (Kosola 207 in 2012 and 188 in 2013), Lenza is on pace for 83 hits, 15 doubles, eight triples, eight homers, 136 total bases, 45 RBI, four steals and 72 runs scored. Exaggerated figures certainly, but totals, if achieved, that would aline on-base with both Bertam’s and Kosola’s box scores from last year.
“We knew coming in that she was a very good hitter and wanted to put her in a place in the lineup where we thought she could help us the most,” Woods said. “We thought we’d put her at lead-off – you can see with her batting average, she’s going to get on base – and if we can someone on base like that, we have Briauna (Taylor), Miranda (Cleary) and Tanya (Calkins) coming up after to hopefully drive her in.”
A principle the Lakers swung into practice in a game against Upper Iowa University Feb. 23, again at the Lewis Dome. Lenza reached base and was driven in on a two-run shot by senior shortstop and two-hole hitter Briauna Taylor, the 23rd homer of her career, fifth most in GVSU history.
The Lakers lost again, this time 4-2, but showed glimpses of the offensive team they can become batting behind Lenza.
“Jenna’s actually filling the lead-off role pretty well,” Taylor said. “We’ve been able to count on her so far to get on when we need her to, and when she does, our hitting is so contagious.”
Taylor in 52 at-bats this season ranks third on the roster in doubles (2), tied for second in triples (1), second in all three triple-slash categories; batting average (.442), on-base percentage (.464) and slugging percentage (.865), and has a team-high six yard balls, 45 total bases, 29 RBI and three steals on three attempts.
Yet as potent as the 1-2 punch of Lenza and Taylor has been at the top of the Laker lineup – both rate in the top four of virtually all offensive categories, including walks and sacrifice flies – might be even more integral to GVSU’s success.
Through 15 games, the duo has combined for 60 put-outs, 42 assists, three double plays and just four errors, numbers that favorably compare and project in both production and efficiency to the Bertram-Taylor double-play pairing of past seasons.
“I think Bri and I are both good athletes, quick on the turn, and have worked a lot together on different things, especially double plays,” Lenza said. “In our first game, we had a little bit of a mix up that cost us the game, but we’re working on becoming more comfortable with each other while understanding how we each like to handle certain situations.
“It takes time, but we’re going to get it.”
Or maybe not much time at all. Plenty has been asked from Lenza, and to this point, she hasn’t blinked.
Not stepping into the batter’s box straight from high school in Kosola’s absence to face collegiate pitchers.
“I haven’t led off most of my career, and coming in to replace Nellie, who did such an amazing job, I understand it’s a big role to fill,” Lenza said. “I’m trying my best to be the best lead-off hitter I can be for this team.
“I’m just trying to get myself on base to help the team get off to the best start that it can. It can be anything, – a single, double, triple – but as long as I can get on, I know the people behind me are going to move me and bring me in.”
Not when she, the only freshman regular for GVSU so far this season, stepped into an infield comprised of three other seniors – Taylor, Clearly at third and Calkins at first.
“She has excellent skills as a second baseman,” Woods said. “If you watch her throw, she has the infielder quick release – she doesn’t come up over the top – she’s quick on the turn when she gets it from Bri, stays down on ground balls and in softball, reacts and covers first on bunts, fields well and she’s very good at hanging in there and picking the ball out of the dirt, too, if it’s thrown to her.
“I saw her play a lot against real good competition in the summer and she did what’s she’s doing now the entire time. Jenna is a great athlete that’s gotten off to a great start for us I’m pretty confident to continue to do what she’s doing throughout our season.”
Not when she was paired with Taylor to assume not one, but two primary and essential roles for a Laker team with national championship aspirations, primed to win now. It took Trammel and Whitaker 19 seasons to build chemistry as ‘the longest running double-play in baseball’. Taylor and Lenza have been challenged to do the job in one.
No. 4 GVSU (11-4) will play next in a double-header beginning Sunday at 1 p.m. at Kentucky Wesleyan (6-10).
“I knew she was good coming in, and she played well in the fall, but Jenna’s doing a great job; it’s kind of like she’s a veteran out there,” Taylor said. “Coming in and being the only freshman in a senior infield has to be stressful, but she fits right in. She’s perfectly suited to fill the position, there’s been no surprises, our chemistry has been good and it’s been an easy transition; right now it feels like she and I have been playing together for years.
“It’s almost like she was able to simply surpass all the freshman nerves to step in right away, like she’s been playing on this team for years, and on the field, she’s not a freshman. She’s going to be a great player for GVSU for the next four years.”