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Thursday, January 23, 2014

Jennie Ritter Meinrod Steps Into Justin's World

With all the insight and analysis we've been doing since the big return, a number of people have mentioned to me that they're looking forward to the return of the "regular stuff". If you're in that group, never fear, it's all on it's way back. We're gonna continue a lot of my own personal favorites, such as Where Are They Now and Hall of Fame Debate are coming back, as well as the fun stuff (like 6 Degrees of Separation) and, of course, interviews! I've had the opportunity to sit down with a number of spectacular players during the course of my hiatus, and I'm excited to be able to bring them to you at long last!

Today, it's time for the first interview of 2014, and boy, is it a dandy one! If you've never heard of Jennie Ritter, well, I must seriously question if you can be considered a legitimate softball fan. ;) One of the best pitchers to ever play the game, Jennie starred for the Michigan Wolverines in the early 2000s and led them to their only National Championship in the history of Ann Arbor's softball program.

After her college career, Jennie played professionally in Japan; on the PFX Tour; and on Team USA. She was named one of the ten best athletes to ever play for the University of Michigan in any sport (an impressive achievement in it's own right!) by Sports Illustrated. Oh yeah, and the Wolverine softball record book contains her name so often, it might as well just be called the Jennie Ritter Career Journal.

Jennie got hitched in the latter part of last year, and got a new job at Louisville Slugger. She's keeping busy, as she's also got some Big Ten broadcasting on her plate this upcoming season. You can keep track of her many, many adventures on Facebook and Twitter @JennieRitter.

Enjoy the interview!


Justin’s World: How did you get started playing softball? Did you play any other sports during your growing-up years? 
Jennie Ritter Meinrod: My dad played baseball, so he always had my sister and I in some sort of softball—I started in tee ball, then coaches pitch, and eventually joined a travel team when I was 12.

I played almost every sport growing up.  I even danced ballet and jazz!  I was sort of a lazy girl, so my parents wanted to put me in ANYTHING that would get me moving.  I took to basketball and softball.  I played basketball until my senior year.  I loved it, but I wanted to focus on my real love—softball.


JW: Who would you say is your inspiration? How has the influence of that person affected you, both in life and on the field during your playing days?
JRM: I think you become great by inspiration all around you.  If I had to narrow it down, I’d say my parents were very inspiring—my dad through his tremendous baseball skill, and my mom through her mental toughness.  The combination between “Dreaming Big” and “Suck it up” was perfect for me growing up.
Softball specific, I grew up watching Sara Griffin, a HOF pitcher at Michigan in the late 90s.  She was incredible, and I remember always wanting to be like her.  I actually watched her so often that my pitching motion mirrors hers almost identically.  I was lucky enough to communicate with her often during the 2005 season.  She talked me through difficult times and reminded me to keep pushing. 


JW: You come from an athletic family that includes a sister that played four years of softball at Michigan. How did your sister’s influence and athletic success help make you a better pitcher and player?
JRM: Meg has always been a great influence to me.  I think every younger sibling grows up wanting to be a little like their older sister/brother.  I had an innate stubbornness to want to be the best, and natural competition between my sister and I was exactly what I needed.  The better she got, the better I got.  I had to keep up!  She was my number one fan!  I remember that she and her husband arrived to the world series the second game of the finals (drove non stop to get there!).  I was exhausted.  When I saw her, my energy went through the roof!  I wanted to win for her!


JW: Simply put, why Michigan?
JRM: This is the easiest question you asked.  My dad was drafted to play  baseball out of High School (for the Houston Astros), and he turned it town for his academics.  He took a scholarship—as a pitcher—to Michigan.  My sister and I grew up “bleeding blue.”  Living just outside of Ann Arbor didn't hurt either.  Meg had a lot of offers from other schools, but in the end, she wanted to be at a program that was going to make a run for a championship.  I think it was inevitable that I would want to have a chance to play with her again, and what better place than Michigan!?
Other deciding factors were just icing on the cake.  Playing for Hutch was a dream come true.  She is by far one of the most motivating people I've ever met.  She gets “it” and she knows how to win.  I wouldn't have been successful without some of her tough love.  Beyond Hutch, Michigan athletics has always been outstanding, classy, and garnered a ridiculous amount of respect in the Big Ten and in the country.  I couldn't say no!


JW: If at all possible, describe the experience of going to the Women’s College World Series for the first time. The atmosphere, the fans, the competition…
JRM: The WCWS was one of the most amazing experiences I've ever had.  The first time I went (in 2004), I was terrified.  The mound seemed like it was 50 feet away!  I felt like I couldn’t get the ball there.
The next year was different.  The nerves were gone.  I knew our team was good.  This year was something to prove.  In 2005, it was all business.  Your competition is the best in the country.  There were no “easy” games.  YOU had to bring your “A” game every inning, every pitch.  Those who win, win because they have heart—because they figured out how to maintain a high level of play from the first inning of game 1 to the last inning of the championship.  You can’t win if you don’t do that.
The fans are the best fans—the BIGGEST fans of softball around too!  It didn’t matter if the fans came into the World Series as a fan of yours, but your goal was to make them a fan by the time they left.  I think we did that. 


JW: What was the first thing that went through your mind after the last out was recorded in the championship-clinching game that gave the Wolverines their first-ever title?
JRM: Quite honestly, “Thank God we’re done!” (haha).  Everyone knows that by the end of the series you are exhausted, running on fumes.  Sometimes you just go, and hope you don’t run out of gas.  My goal was to remain as consistent as possible until we finished on top.  My team came through, and that was the best moment!
I remember crying when we finished, but not because of all the history we made.  More so I think it was mixed emotions of exhaustion, but also the end of a team that had the best chemistry I have ever seen in my life.  It was sad to finally have the season end—I know we all would have played all summer long together if we could. 
You don’t honestly feel the whole “You made history, you won a National Championship” feeling until later.  It’s so much to take in.  I think it hit me when we got home and had our staff administration standing at the field entrance clapping and cheering for us (Lloyd Carr included).  The win was so much more than “softball”…it was winning for Michigan.  After that warm welcome, we went on the field and had thousands of fans celebrating with us.  That was an indescribable feeling.  There were people there who had never been fans of softball until we proved that it was an incredible sport.  That was the real win here—doing something that makes the sport exciting, that brings more fans in and eventually grows the sport.


JW: Your trophy case is bursting at the seams with all of the awards and accolades that you’ve received, but if you had to choose just one to hold onto and get rid of all the rest, which would it be?
JRM: As cheesy as it may be, I think that the best award is the National Championship trophy.  It encompasses all we did as a TEAM.  Personal awards are great, and I’m forever thankful that I was recognized, but those don’t come without the team award first.  I’d take that team back over any personal awards, any day.


JW: What was it like to play four years for “Hutch”, indisputably one of the greatest softball coaches EVER?
JRM: I know I talked about her a bit earlier, but it’s hard to put into words what kind of coach she is.  We had a love/hate relationship.  My freshman year was difficult.  Bottom line is, I thought I was great, and she thought I needed more work.  She was right.  As soon as she could break me down out of my ego, I became a better pitcher.
Then she found out I pitched better when she yelled at me.  So she yelled at me a lot.  And I kept getting better.  I can laugh at it now because I am as intense as she is, but boy did she know how to fire me up.  I think that’s her greatest strength—she knows her players.  She knows what fires them up, what tears them down.  She knows how to get them playing her best.  She always walked the line of coach and friend—there was always that undying respect for her, but you could go to her with anything and she would be there for you.  I can’t tell you how many coaches I’ve interviewed that can’t tell you one single thing about their players and who they really are.  Hutch has a knack for it. 
And I have to mention that she may be the most sarcastic person I’ve met—and it’s great.  It kept the moment light, but intense all at the same time.  Coaches would die to have the same traits as Hutch does.  They aspire to be like her because she seems to have it all figured out.  She’d tell you otherwise, but she’s not the best coach EVER without knowing what she’s doing.


JW: What legacy do you hope you have left both on the University of Michigan’s softball program and the sport of softball in general?
JRM: Hutch has always had one requirement for each of her senior classes:  Leave the program better than it was when you started.  That’s the legacy I hope that I leave with my fellow classmates.  I think we did some great things for the team and were a part of something that we are hopefully still influencing future Wolverines to aspire to be!  I know that we will have left that team better when they get back and win their Second WCWS championship.  Can’t wait for the day!
On the sport in general, I have always said this: Winning the WCWS was one of the most important parts of my life—it opened up doors I never thought possible, and it was the best feeling of success I have ever felt.  If I can leave a legacy, it’s that whatever I chose to do after my career playing, it’s that I could help others achieve the same success I had so that they can be afforded the same opportunities that I have had.  If I can teach just one kid to work hard, dream big, and get where I was, I will be successful.  That’s why I’ve always stayed in softball, and why my intention is to always be involved in one way or another!


JW: You were drafted into both the NPF & the PFX tour, but elected to play just the latter. How did you come to that decision, and have you regretted not playing in the National Pro Fastpitch league?
JRM: Choosing the PFX tour was a fairly easy decision, simply because of the structure of it.  The NPF required you to live where you played, and the PFX tour allowed you to travel from your home to the event and return back home.  At the point in my life that I was in, it was not right for me to travel to a location and live for some time, so the PFX tour was a better fit. 
I don’t regret not playing in the NPF, but what I do wish would have happened is that the folks involved with the NPF would have joined forces with the PFX tour.  There was no reason they had to be run separately.  The model that the PFX tour had was sustainable with more support.  Being able to play the NPF teams would have helped it, and would have helped the NPF as we had many Olympians (Jessica Mendoza, Laura Berg, Lisa Fernandez to name a few) and would have grown the NPF.  I dream of a day where the NPF will be strong and sustainable.  I’m not sure we’re there yet, but I hope we do get there!


JW: How awesome was it for you to put on the red, white, and blue for the first time as a member of Team USA?
JRM: I think it’s every softball player’s dream to wear the red, white, and blue.  Being able to represent your country is an amazing feeling.  Team USA is a group of incredible athletes, and I’m very lucky to have been a part of that.  I met some amazing people through my experience, and grew as a softball player as well.


JW: What have you been up to since your playing career ended?
JRM: I’ve owned my own business since I graduated.  This is one of the doors that opened up for me from winning the National Championship and playing team USA.  Everyone should dream of owning your own business, and I was able to right out of college.
As successful as it was, I was offered a position to work with Louisville Slugger this past October, and took it.  I always entertain job offers, and I felt this would be another that I would interview for and say “thanks, but no thanks” and I was completely wrong.  Louisville Slugger is a tremendous combination of all the things I love—they have not only been a family owned business for over 100 years, they are interested in growing softball and baseball, and the athletes in it, not just selling bats.    They have recently launched the “Beautifully Powerful” campaign at the grassroots level, teaching girls that not only is it okay to beautiful AND powerful, but that being powerful IS beautiful in itself.  It’s an initiative to help teach and grow softball players. 
Needless to say, it was a dream job with all included.  My husband and agreed to take the job and move to Louisville.  We are currently in the process of relocating now!


Complete this sentence: If not for softball, I _would be one of the CEO of a top Engineering firm…at least that was my goal in college! :)


JW: Aside from private lessons, have you considered coaching
at the collegiate or some other level? Is that something you would be interested in pursuing in the future?
JRM: I did coach a travel team for about 3 years.  We were 100% in getting scholarships for our kids and that was a great feeling.  I really wanted to push the “college” feel on high school kids so they could make an impact in college on the first day of practice.  Sounds great on the surface, but I always had to remember that kids are still growing and it’s hard to push them as hard as college kids.
I never really had a big desire to coach.  I was offered the pitching coach position at Mississippi State and Georgia Tech in different years, but after interviews, it just didn’t feel right.  I don’t think it’s in my path of life.  I think that the people who choose to coach are some incredible people, and it takes a special person to endure that type of pressure year in and year out and still be sane!  I’m not sure I fit that mold. :)


JW: Where do you see yourself in five years’ time?
JRM: Right now, I see myself in Louisville still, growing through Louisville Slugger.  Of course, if you asked me 5 years ago if I saw myself AT Louisville Slugger, I’d laugh in your face.  I’ve learned not to try to see too far into the future because it will always change on you. 
I know that I’ll be happy doing whatever I’m doing though.  That’s really the only way to live. :)


JW: Say you were Aladdin and the genie agreed to grant you three wishes. What would you ask for?
JRM: I’d say I’d wish for my husband and I to live forever and stay young the whole time!  As far as the other two?  Hmm…that would be hard.  I suppose I would ask for never-ending money.  If you have money, you can help anyone and every one!

JW: If you had the opportunity to have dinner & sit down and talk with any three people from history, who would they be and why?
JRM:
1.       Bo Schembechler – Legendary football coach and one of the most inspiring speakers I have ever heard.
2.       Walt Disney – The most imaginative person with one of the most creative minds I can think of.  He had big dreams, and made them real.
3.       My grandpa – He died when I was 1 and didn’t have a chance to get to know him.  He is the most interesting person I never met.

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