When Jenna Kean was a freshman, she hardly made a sound when she moved around Hillenbrand Stadium.
When she’d place her bag near Coach Mike Candrea in the dugout, she wouldn’t acknowledge him. When she’d duck into the Lapan Center, she’d keep her head down, eyes forward.
Eventually, Candrea reached a tipping point.
“Finally I said, ‘Jenna, can you say hello? Is that too much to ask? Are you having a bad day? You get up on the wrong side of the bed? We expect you to be present and say hello and know who’s around you,”’ he told Kean.
“She’s just one of those kids that sometimes you want to shake around a little bit and make sure that she’s there. She’s a funny kid. She’s not very emotional. ... But I think she’s starting to lighten up a little bit.”
Now a sophomore, Kean is enjoying a breakout season, which she credits to just that—lightening up and not putting so much pressure on herself.
“I definitely think my attitude has gotten a lot better throughout these past couple months and my outlook on what I need to do, what am I expected to do during practice, games, and being a good teammate,” said Kean, a former top-50 recruit. “As a freshman I was coming from high school, where I did really well, to a bigger scene. And yeah, there’s a bit more pressure.”
The right fielder started in 37 games as a freshman and had a rather rude awakening.
Playing through a dislocated shoulder, Kean only hit .271 and, at one point, saw her batting average dip all the way to .211. That’s far cry from the .600 average she posted as a senior at Los Alamitos High School.
Her struggles only made her quieter.
“A lot of times kids will take their performances so personal that they tend to shut themselves off from the team,” Candrea said. “And I think that’s kind of part of the growth is understanding that if you have a bad at-bat, you still have to go and play defense, you still have to be part of the team, you still have to communicate. And we have numerous of those that have had to learn that. But that’s the fun part of the process.”
Kean has been more vocal as a sophomore, actually willing to approach her coaches. And not just to say hi, but to seek advice.
Good thing too, because the left-handed hitting Kean has one of the best to learn from in assistant coach Caitlin Lowe, a four-time All-American outfielder.
“Caitlin wasn’t a real vocal player, but Caitlin was present all the time,” Candrea said. “You never doubted that she was ready to go. And so when you have those opportunities, a lot of it is with these young kids is to understand the resources you have sitting around you every day and utilize them.
“That’s kind of how I grew up playing the game. I’d find a good player and I’d want to find out everything I could about what made them tick. And unfortunately, sometimes kids get in here as freshmen and they think they’ve arrived and they realize they haven’t arrived. And they have to kind of go through the down spin before they start realizing it. I’ve always said when the student arrives, the teacher can appear. And I think that’s a very powerful thing.”
Like Lowe, Kean is capable of slapping and swinging away. Doing a mix of both, Kean is hitting .348 heading into this weekend’s series at Cal, thriving in the No. 9 spot of a high-powered lineup.
The Wildcats lead the Pac-12 in runs scored (336). Not only has Kean set the table for the Hillenbrand Bombers at the top of the order — she has scored 25 times — but she has also driven in 10 runs.
“I think she’s starting to understand the game a little bit,” Candrea said. “I think early on she frustrated me sometimes because she gave away some at-bats, didn’t look like she really knew what she was trying to do. But I think the more she plays the game at this level, the more she has a better idea of what her strengths are and what the pitcher’s strengths are and what matches up to that.
“So I’m pleased with her development. It needs to continue, but I think the one thing I really like right now is she’s swinging away with some success. And if you look at the stats with runners on base, she’s done a pretty good job. You always hope you can find someone in that nine spot that can also drive in runs.”
When it comes to defense, Kean has yet to make an error and has a powerful arm, despite her rail-thin, 5-foot-8 frame. She’s used it to gun down two runners this year — and win many of the friendly competitions UA outfielders have at practice.
“It’s insane some of the throws that she does,” said center fielder Alyssa Palomino-Cardoza. “Jenna is this tiny thing and she just has a cannon for an arm.”
Oddly enough, Kean is big eater too.
“It’s really weird to look at her plate,” Palomino-Cardoza said. “I’m like, ‘Jenna, how do you eat all that?’ And she puts it away.”
Kean’s best quality is easier to spot.
“She’s got one thing you can’t teach and that’s above average speed,” Candrea said.
It makes her a threat to reach base any time she puts the ball in play, which she is doing more and more this season. Kean struck out every 3.2 at-bats as a freshman. She is only striking out every 4.9 at-bats as a sophomore.
“Like I always tell her, you can’t steal first base and we gotta find a way to get you to first,” Candrea said.
All six of Kean’s stolen base attempts have been successful this season, and she would be on the move more if the Wildcats weren’t so conservative. Arizona has been hitting so well that Candrea, also the third-base coach, is wary about running into outs.
“Back in the day, we probably would have laid down a bunt to move her to second, but with this team and the power that we have, you got 21 outs to deal with,” he said. “And you want to make sure if you take a chance, the chance is going to be at least 95 percent in your favor or else you go with something else. And I think Jenna will continue to develop both defensively and offensively. But she’s got a lot of tools.”
And, like her voice, she is learning how to use them.
“She’s starting to understand who she is and what she needs to do to be a good ballplayer at this level,” Candrea said. “And that’s the fun part of coaching—watching kids grow up.”
About that shoulder injury...
Kean dislocated her left (non-throwing) shoulder in the fall leading up to her freshman season, but opted to play through it and put off surgery until last June.
Earlier this spring, Kean said the injury did not cause much discomfort last season, but then acknowledged Tuesday that she feels a lot better this year.
“During practice last year it did hold me back diving, doing simple things like that,” she said. “I would always feel it. But this year, I haven’t had any problems with it and it’s been great.”
Has she been more comfortable swinging the bat too?
“Yes, yes,” Kean said.
Sophomore outfielder Jenna Kean is hitting .348 this season, 77 points higher than last year. She credits a better attitude.Posted by AZ Desert Swarm on Tuesday, April 23, 2019