May 1, 2006
BELLINGHAM, Wash. -
Jessica Wilkinson came to Western Washington University for school - softball came later.
But Wilkinson soon found the lessons she learned in the classroom playing themselves out on the field.
Wilkinson is a graduate student in Western's sports psychology program and an outfielder on the Viking softball team, which she leads with five home runs.
Her dual role has given her new perspective on both her academic and athletic pursuits.
"Not many people get to learn on the field while they're (sports psychology) students," Wilkinson said. "That's what makes this situation unique. After a game, I get to talk about what I've done in my classes. I get to apply it personally."
But the fact that she is both a student at Western and a softball player is especially interesting considering she didn't necessarily expect to be either.
Wilkinson was a Metro League all-star in both softball and basketball at Seattle's Garfield High School. A variety of colleges, including Division I institutions, recruited her to play basketball.
But feeling burned out on hoops, she instead chose to attend the University of Washington on a full academic scholarship in the fall of 2001. When she did return to sports later in her freshman year, it was as a softball player.
Wilkinson walked on to the UW softball team, which needed a bullpen catcher, but soon found herself on the team's travel squad.
Her stock rose again the summer after her freshman year when Wilkinson, along with several of her former Garfield teammates, participated in a softball program for inner-city youths run by Major League Baseball.
Wilkinson's team advanced to the national championship game, and Wilkinson threw out the ceremonial first pitch at Safeco Field when the players were honored at a Mariners game.
The UW coaching staff took note. Seeing potential in her, they asked Wilkinson to redshirt her sophomore year to give her a better chance of playing down the road. She obliged, but decided to remain on track to graduate in four years.
Over the next two seasons, Wilkinson, whose 6-foot frame belies her speed, moved to the outfield but served primarily as the Huskies' pinch runner.
"That was where they needed me, and that's where I was comfortable playing," Wilkinson said. "It tuned out to be a perfect role for me because of the work I put in my (redshirt) year, so it worked out well."
But in 2005 after her third season of softball, Wilkinson was ready to move on. With a bachelor's degree in psychology in hand, she began to look at graduate schools.
"I never thought sports psychology was something I would specifically get into, but I was interested in it," she said. "Then I saw that Western had a program and it combined the two things that I'm good at doing, so I applied."
After enrolling, she discovered she had one more year of softball eligibility left, and she joined the Vikings. Almost immediately, she took on a leadership role.
"At the UW, there were so many girls who had been used to success. They didn't need a vocal leader," Wilkinson said. "Up here, we know that we're good, we just haven't experienced it as much as we would have liked recently ... So when I got here I thought we needed vocal support from players and for everyone to believe in themselves."
After a slow start, the Vikings have won 14 of their last 25 games, and Wilkinson tied Western's single-season home run record, hitting her fifth Sunday at Humboldt State.
"I didn't think it was a possibility to set any records," Wilkinson said. "I've never been about records. If I wanted the glory, I think I would have played basketball at a small school. I don't think I would have even tried to play softball. But I've always been about challenges and going with my gut, so to know that I had the chance to break that record, it was kind of overwhelming."