Former All-American and national champion goes family first, makes a grand comeback
Michael Jordan waited three years from the time he capped a championship career by throwing a dagger into the heart of the Utah Jazz and its fans before returning to his profession.
What if he'd waited 13 years before making a comeback?
That's precisely what Mormon softball player Jenny Dalton Hill has done — and she's used both softball and baseball to make it happen. As for that decade-plus bridge between setting milestones on the field — that's where her three children come into play.
Hill, a first-team All-American and national softball champion three times each in the mid-1990s with the University of Arizona, knows a little bit about what it means to "pick up your cross." Fresh off another national title with the Wildcats — a season that saw her team go 58-9 and in personally garnering NCAA Player of the Year honors — Hill soon found herself in the running for a spot on the 1996 women's softball Olympic team, and the following year, with a professional baseball team that played against top collegiate male players.
It was a season that took them from Alaska to Florida and Nicaragua and was the only summer of the team's four in existence in which they were positive in the win-loss category (23-22). The Colorado Silver Bullets can be found in the National Baseball Hall of Fame, in Cooperstown, N.Y., today.
But, just like one of Dalton's 76 career home runs — sixth in NCAA softball history — the softball legend was going, going, gone.
Actually, Hill was plain gone, and it came as a bit of a surprise to some of those who had spent even one season lacing the cleats together. That surprise especially came to someone who saw Hill as so good at what she did that the men's minor professional leagues could have been in her future.
"She was probably as quick as a big as anyone I’ve ever seen, including people in the big leagues," said Hall of Fame pitcher Phil Niekro, who coached Hill as the manager of the Silver Bullets during the summer of 1997. "She could have had as good a chance as anyone to have started in the minor leagues. I mean, she was really good."
Hill's chances might have skyrocketed as well had she been able to play during the club's entire four-year existence, giving her more opportunity to be accustomed to a game with a smaller ball and a different release point from the pitcher, among other things.
"She was definitely an offensive force to be reckoned with," said Bruce Crabbe, who was a part of the Silver Bullets staff and is now the coach of the Salem Red Sox, the single-A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox. "Offensively, she probably could have played at the lower levels."
But it was a certain perspective on her calling in life that kept Hill from rounding the professional athletics bases any further.
Hill's marriage in 1996 to her husband, Marc Hill, set her life goals in a direction not found on the diamond. After making the final cut for the '96 Olympic team that won a gold medal in Atlanta, the closing of the Silver Bullets organization the following season after it couldn't find another sponsor, Hill made a decision to start building a family — which now includes 13-year-old Dalton, 11-year-old Brooke and 9-year-old Cogan — even easier.
But there was the share of alternative options. Hill spoke of times in which Mike Candrea, her coach at Arizona who led the 2000 and 2004 Olympic teams, commented to her about how much he needed a talented middle infielder for his first team.
"Growing up in the (LDS) Church, you know that family comes first," said Hill, of the Beaumont Ward, Lexington Kentucky North Stake, while describing herself as the first of her friends to tie the knot. "When I was in college, I wasn't dating just to date and go out and party; my purpose was to find someone to spend forever with. When I got married, I realized it was time to grow up. My right is not the next person’s right, but I knew my time was to focus on things that mattered most."
It was a perspective that Marc, who is currently the assistant to the athletic director at the University of Kentucky, appreciates today and certainly when he first met his wife. As Marc Hill did homework with his then-girlfriend, the former Catholic thought that her Bible was just a bit larger than normal. The ensuing discussions about latter-day scripture and ancient text from lands outside the Middle East was the first step in a new life path for a man who has since served as a bishop in the Bluegrass State.
"It was just fun — he was my Primary student, but he was older than me," Jenny Hill said of the time in which Marc began asking questions. "I just wanted to make sure that he was doing it for the right reasons, not so we'd just have something in common, where even if we broke up, he'd keep doing it for his life."
Jenny Hill only took her husband to church at one of the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' local wards one time before she left Tuscon for the summer, a time when Marc Hill's interest in the gospel was validated.
"At one point he called me and said he had just taken part in a missionary discussion," she said with excitement still in her voice. "The missionaries had never had anyone call them, so they thought it was a joke. When Marc showed up for the discussion at the institute building, he called from there and asked if they were still coming."
With both parties having the family raising perspective following their marriage before her senior year, a well-written chapter of each of their lives closed — until Hill's was revisited for a brief time last summer.
"She put herself aside for family and kids first, did what’s supposed to be done, as opposed to others that play forever," Marc Hill said. "I'm not saying that’s bad, but that’s not the plan we are taught. That’s why it was so great for her to play at a world championship level with Team USA."
One call from three-year Arizona teammate Laura Espinoza-Watson was enough to pique Jenny Hill's interest in competing in Venezuela, particularly after receiving some baseball training with Colorado.
"Jenny got the itch again," Espinoza-Watson said. "Both of us miss the camaraderie of playing for a team. It was kind of like a farewell tour for each of us. When we played in the past, it came easy, but now the game was taking a toll on us. We were now battling who we were, where we were at, but were on the same path, competing for a gold medal."
Although the team came short of such a goal, finishing with bronze — not to mention the death of a spectator during one of the games due to a stray bullet, which forced half the tournament to be moved from Venezuela’s capital of Caracas to Maracay and its one stadium hours away — Hill's experience resulted in a variety of emotions that ultimately contributed to a career that Hill said she felt consummated in an appropriate fashion.
"Competitiveness never really goes away, so I was excited to try but scared because it went so long," said Hill, who trained in Orlando and North Carolina with Espinoza-Watson before being accepted onto the squad that actually traveled to Venezuela. "The first day, I didn't know if I'd be able to make it out of bed the next morning, but Heavenly Father helped me take it one day at a time. The adversary wanted me to be discouraged when my body was not cooperating as it needed to."
Her courage and perseverance indicate a trademark characteristic that has moved many individuals in Hill’s life, including a coach who has rings for all but two of his fingers and who has instructed 42 All-Americans.
“As a coach, you look at some highlights in your career, and sometimes you run across people who have made an impact in your life how you hope to make an impact in theirs,” Candrea said. “Jenny is one of those kids. She is a reason why you do what we do. I’ve never worked a day in my life because I have a passion for what I do, which includes the opportunity to meet and coach people like Jenny Dalton Hill.”
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