By Bob Behre
Jess Hughes had delivered two remarkably productive softball seasons at Fordham University but the experience left her unfulfilled.
“I just felt like I wasn’t as confident a player as I needed to be,” said Hughes prior to an afternoon pre-season practice at her new school on Friday. So, at the conclusion of the 2017 Fordham season, she began looking for a change of scenery.
“I started the process right at the end of the season last year,” said Hughes.
Hughes’ transfer from Fordham to Rutgers University was announced in a July 24 Rutgers press release that was your typical, straightforward college communication. “Jessica has extensive collegiate experience,” said Rutgers head coach Jay Nelson in the release. “She’s a great hitter who bats in the top of the lineup and is a very athletic middle infielder that will help solidify our defense.”
All of that is true, but you had to think coach Nelson had bridled his emotions a bit despite knowing his program had landed a gem. The Scarlet Knights had suddenly solidified their middle infield with a veteran Division 1 player with a proven record of success.
“Last year we were very inexperienced in our middle infield,” said Nelson. “It led to a few mid-season changes as we relied on freshmen to fill the shortstop and second base positions. Jessie will anchor our middle infield with her confidence and experience. We moved her from second base to shortstop because of that experience. She has good hands, fields the ball cleanly and has great range.”
The move to Rutgers gets Hughes about an hour closer to her home in Gloucester County but her college choice had more to do with her comfort level than geography.
“It wasn’t important at the time that I was close to home,” said Hughes, who also considered the University of Virginia. “I just wanted to be happy. But now that I am closer to home, it feels good.” Hughes leaves behind an impressive Fordham lineup and some very good friends.
“I loved my teammates,” she said, “but I just didn’t feel the coaches had the confidence they should have had in me. I’m more confident here at Rutgers.”
That feeling wasn’t necessarily revealed in Hughes’ performance, which never faltered and resulted in two First Team All-Atlantic 10 Conference honors and a First Team All-ECAC and a National Federation of Coaches (NFCA) All-Region designation last spring.
All Hughes did in 2017 was bat .370 with 67 hits, including 12 doubles, six triples and 11 home runs. She also boasted a gaudy .510 on-base percentage and a .685 slugging percentage while driving in 41 runs, scoring 64 runs and stealing 23 bases.
She was equally imposing her freshman season in the Bronx when she was named one of 25 finalists for the NFCA Freshman of the Year Award. Hughes batted .352 that season with 64 hits and her 37 walks helped produce a .469 on-base percentage. She stole a school-record 36 bases.
Hughes picked up seamlessly at Fordham where she had left off in high school. She led Washington Twp. to two NJSIAA state Group 4 championships, including her senior year in 2015 when she topped the state with 68 hits. She also ripped 24 doubles, scored 53 runs and drove home 47 runs from the leadoff spot in the batting order that season.
Hughes is a slashing left-handed hitter and a gifted athlete with outstanding foot speed. While she floated from shortstop to second base at Fordham, she’ll be nestled in at her favorite position when the Scarlet Knights season opens on Feb. 9 against Cal Riverside in Fullerton, California.
“I want to do what the team needs me to do,” she said. “I’d like to make less errors in the field. I’ve played shortstop my entire life, so I’m always looking to minimize the errors.”
Rutgers opens its season with 33 straight road games in mostly warm weather locations, bouncing from Fullerton to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, to Georgia, to Virginia, to Boca Raton, Florida, back to Georgia before three late March games at Wisconsin and a return home to Piscataway for a three-game home-opening series, beginning on March 30, against Big 10 rival Penn State.
“It’s not an easy start,” said Hughes. “It’s most important to have fun and stay focused on our goals. We’ll be in warm weather for a few weeks, so that helps.”
Hughes has plenty of big game experience that dates back to high school. She starred for her Washington Twp. teams that won the 2013 and 2015 NJSIAA Group 4 championships and would conclude her scholastic career with a stunning 219 hits. Her Fordham teams won two Atlantic 10 Conference championships and played in two regional tournaments. But, as Nelson points out, Hughes has and will continue to undergo a transition every transfer faces.
Nelson explains Hughes has had such day-to-day challenges as transitioning to a new team, a new school, bonding with teammates and getting to know a new coaching staff, never mind finding her way around an unfamiliar sprawling campus.
“I felt like a freshman coming into Rutgers because I didn’t know anyone. But my teammates made it easy. They’ve been great. I’ve never felt left out.”
Says Nelson, “Jessie has met all of these challenges and is doing well academically and athletically. She has made Rutgers her home.” There is, however, one final hurdle that Hughes cannot clear until she takes the field against a level of competition that should be described as elevated from what she experienced at Fordham.
“She is used to playing a challenging pre-conference schedule (and succeeding), but the Big Ten Conference will be her next big challenge,” said Nelson. “The school she came from finished first in its conference, but, comparing RPI, they would have finished sixth in our conference. The Big Ten takes 12 of our 14 teams to the conference tournament.”
That said, Hughes produced in a big way against Fordham’s top competition last season. She hit a solo home run in a 1-0 victory over No. 23 Baylor, launched a two-run bomb in a 7-6 win over Tulsa, singled in a loss to No. 3 Florida, singled, walked, stole a base and scored a run in a victory over North Carolina State and singled and scored a run in a win against Mississippi State in the NCAA Regional in St. Lake City.
For good measure, Hughes performed well in front of her future coach. Fordham swept three games with the Scarlet Knights last spring as Hughes went 4-for-7, hit two home runs, knocked in three runs, drew four walks and scored six runs.
“Her numbers speak for themselves,” said Nelson. “Her 11 home runs proved she can hit for power and the 23 stolen bases speaks to her speed. In the fall, she hit leadoff and she will probably hit leadoff or in one of the top three spots for us. Her offense is a great addition to this team. She is a leader on both offense and defense and will be a great complement to our senior leadership.”
Hughes’ final words are the most imposing of all for Rutgers’ opponents.
“Now I’m happy and confident on the field.”