John Jennings ready to bounce back for UMass baseball after injury-filled 2015 campaign

By Tyler Fiedler

 

(Collegian File Photo)
(Collegian File Photo)

It says something about an athlete’s heart and determination to come back from a season full of injuries. It also says something if that same person misses 25 games the prior year and is still voted captain by his teammates.

Massachusetts baseball captain John Jennings experienced a whirlwind season in 2015, battling multiple injuries on his way to playing in only 18 of UMass’ 43 games and batting .109 with just five hits in 46 at bats.

“Last year was obviously a tough year. All summer I pretty much worked to get healthy and this fall was the first time in my first three years that I felt 100 percent,” Jennings said.

The extra work and rehab has given Jennings and Minutemen coach Mike Stone the confidence that the catcher/first baseman can come back and lead them to a successful 2016 season.

“I tore my hamstring last season and it was bothering me with my swing and running and everything,” Jennings said. “So I worked out that all summer and really strengthened it.”

“I think he will come back even better,” Stone added. “He worked really hard and put in the time. I just hope he has the chance to reach his potential.”

Stone believes Jennings’ potential could put him in the discussion to be one of the top catchers in the northeast region.

Return to form

Keeping Jennings healthy will be vital to UMass’ success this season. The 6-foot, 205-pound senior has shown what he is a capable of doing on the field, hitting .264 in 106 at bats during his sophomore season.

Stone hopes his captain can remain in the lineup for the season because he knows just how valuable an asset Jennings is in the Minutemen lineup and in the field.

“(John) knows how to run the ball club,” Stone said. “He has progressed as a hitter and will give us good balance in the lineup.”

Catching is widely considered to be one of most important defensive positions on the field. A catcher controls the pitching staff and makes sure everything is going accordingly and are often natural leaders on the field. So when Jennings was awarded the captaincy by his teammates, it seemed like a natural fit.

Jennings might not be a big vocal leader like some other players on the roster, but Stone likes the leadership he brings day in and day out.

“His leadership is more ‘lead by example’,” Stone said. “He has ownership in the ball club and has real good qualities to lead this team.

“To the team, he is a great leader,” added junior pitcher Ryan Moloney. “The way he carries himself, he is always positive. He is a huge part of this team.”

As one of the Minutemen’s top pitchers, Moloney knows how important it is to have that consistency behind the plate.

“I think he was frustrated (last season) but you couldn’t tell,” Moloney said. “He was always cheering on the guys and wanted the best for everyone.”

Jennings admitted this frustration, adding that his health was a major issue throughout the season.

“It got to me a little bit, not being able to play the way I know I can,” Jennings said. “Out of the 18 games I played, I was probably healthy for two or three of them.”

Staying on the field

Facing adversity is something not all players are capable of dealing with, but Jennings is not one of those players. Facing a season full of nagging injuries can get a player down on himself, but for Jennings, staying positive helped him come back better and stronger than ever for the upcoming season.

“Last year from time to time I would get down on myself,” Jennings said. “I would go into the games, the ones I could play, I couldn’t go 100 percent and it really hindered me. Mentally I wasn’t all there but I think staying focused and it gave me more confidence now that I’m fully healthy and can deal with adversity.”

A baseball season is a tough grind for all players. Putting in the work in the offseason and then battling injuries all season is frustrating for any player, especially when playing a grueling position like catcher where taking foul balls off the mask and getting down to block balls from going to the backstop is part of the job description.

But Jennings understands and embraces this.

His day-to-day regimen is now much longer and thought-out since the injuries, which includes getting started early in the morning for rehabbing to warming up before games and practices. After practice he does more of the same, icing his legs to keep them fresh for the next day. When he is not on the practice field, the trainer’s or the classroom, he is in the gym working out.

“He has come back bigger and stronger,” Stone said. “He has worked hard and has a lot of potential this season.”

Although Stone is not putting pressure on his catcher, Jennings knows he will need to step up again in order for his team to succeed this season.

Jennings knows all too well how a season can go from bad to worse with nagging injuries keeping him off the field a year ago. However, a positive attitude and a regained focus has put him in the mindset to bounce back in 2016.

“I know that everyone looks up to me kind of as a role model per say,” Jennings said. “I expect to be out there every day and play as hard as I can and do what I can to help this team win.”

Tyler Fiedler can be reached by email [email protected] and followed on Twitter @Tyler_Fiedler.