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‘We’re going to catch people off guard’: Softball prepares for upcoming season under new coach

The+Kent+State+softball+team+celebrates+as+5th+year+Brenna+Brownfield+makes+it+to+home+base+after+making+a+two+point+home-run.
Matthew Brown
The Kent State softball team celebrates as 5th year Brenna Brownfield makes it to home base after making a two point home-run.

On June 21, 2023, Kent State softball announced the hiring of coach Jessica O’Donnell.

She spent the last five seasons at Saint Francis University, where she led the Red Flash to three Northeast Conference regular season and tournament titles. 

In five seasons, Saint Francis recorded two 40-plus win seasons and won over 78%  of its conference games.

KSU has had two 40-win seasons since 1991 (2008 and 2015).

“I’ve always had an interest in coming here if the job ever came open,” O’Donnell said. “You can tell they have a ton of fans, and the community is very committed to the softball program. There is something special here, and it was a really good fit overall, from the players to us as a coaching staff. It’s nice that they care about their softball program here.”

When entering a new program, the challenges start with building a culture and getting players to buy in. 

“We’re taking over a program with a previous leadership that had a different culture and vision than we do,” O’Donnell said. “We’re trying to establish and build relationships, getting the players to blindly trust this coaching staff to come in here.” 

Kent State finished last season 18-31 and 13-14 in the Mid-American Conference, and despite not appearing in the conference tournament since 2019, O’Donnell believes she has the pieces to compete now.

“I’m an extremely competitive person, and my goal is to win championships — we talk about that every single day,” she said. “We’re still working on that mindset piece of getting them to understand that it is possible, reminding them every single day that if you want this, it’s achievable.”

The Flashes will be led by six upperclassmen and 14 underclassmen. 

“We’ve established a leadership committee filled with eight players that were voted on by the team,” O’Donnell said. “We meet on a weekly basis and talk about leadership development, talking about scenarios, and figuring out a way that we can overcome some issues from a person, student and athlete growth standpoint.”

Graduate student infielder Alexandria Whitmore is someone who has impressed O’Donnell since the start of fall camp. 

“I know what she’s capable of on the field, but to see her grow as a human and as a student has been amazing,” she said. “I credit her with being able to welcome us with open arms and being willing to grow. It’s really hard for a senior to blindly trust someone new to come in and teach them and believe they can help make you better.

“I tell her all the time, ‘I don’t think you’ve reached your full potential,’ and it’s nice to see the results pay off from that.”

Last season, Whitmore finished second on the team in batting average (.304) and fourth in on-base plus slugging percentage (.767).

The offseason has been built around one word for O’Donnell’s team: “trust.”

“We talked about that word a lot, taking a risk and seeing what happens,” she said. “I could go around the entire infield, outfield and pitching staff and say I’ve been really impressed with these players because they’ve fully bought in.”

Being able to find players who want to be on the team and be a part of the change is vital for O’Donnell.

“The biggest challenge is establishing your culture and getting those who aren’t bought in, out,” she said. “I need a fully committed team every day, knowing that every day is going to be a grind.” 

“Are you mentally and physically prepared for that? If you’re not, then this maybe isn’t the place or scene for you.”

For most programs, it can take three or four years to establish a culture and start to see success, but not for O’Donnell, who wants her team to compete for championships in year one.

“My short-term goal is to win a championship, and my long-term goal is to go and win a regional,” she said. “I stand by the fact that I believe that’s going to happen here.”

Kent State has made four NCAA Tournaments: 1990, 2006, 2008 and 2017; its lone regional championship came in 1990.

Success can be seen in many different ways, but for O’Donnell, it starts with doing something people are not expecting. The Flashes open their season with a double header against Elon University Feb. 8. MAC play begins March 22 and 23 against Ball State. 

“Having a team where we can look at each other at that last game and say we’ve really made good progress for the future of Kent State, and we’ve done something nobody thought was possible,” she said. “We’re going to catch people off guard; what people saw last year is not us anymore.”

Jacob Shondel is sports editor. Contact him at [email protected].

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About the Contributors
Jacob Shondel, Sports Editor
Jacob is a senior journalism major. He enjoys writing about sports and has previously covered women’s lacrosse and soccer. Contact him at [email protected].
Matthew Brown, Photo Editor
Matthew is a junior photography major. He has a passion for photography and traveling. Contact him at [email protected].

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