Jenna Laird's Emergence Helps Mizzou Become SEC Contender
Missouri's Jenna Laird expected her first season of college softball to be like a typical season for a freshman. Her goal was to compete to become the starting shortstop for the Tigers, but what ended up happening exceeded her expectations. She was named the SEC Freshman of the Year and helped lead Missouri to super regionals.
"I came in kind of just wanting to be able to fight for my position, and then seeing that I was starting and producing, not that I was overwhelmed, I was just shocked that it was actually happening," Laird said. "People say, 'Oh, you can play in the SEC, you can do whatever,' but I never really believed that I was going to be like how I was this season. I thought it was going to be just like a normal season for a freshman D1 softball player, but really it was kind of just amazing overall."
Missouri's early-season games against Florida State and Oklahoma were considerable parts of her development on the field. Missouri head coach Larissa Anderson said that Laird had the composure of an upperclassman in pressure situations and that the game came to her. She knew that Laird was ready for the grind of the SEC season.
"You don't see that out of a lot of freshmen," Anderson said. "Freshmen sometimes feel like they have to do more than what's expected, and she just had such an unbelievable calmness and composure when she was in the batter's box. Which then, I knew could move her up in the lineup because she can handle those situations."
Laird's first experience playing in an SEC series came against Georgia. She tallied five hits and two RBI in the series. She describes that something clicked for her when SEC play began.
"It kind of just clicked for me a little bit," she said. "I was always working with all of the defensive and hitting coaches. I was always asking what to do to be doing it better."
As the season continued, Laird became a key contributor in the Tigers' lineup, and was a bat that the team could rely on to get a big hit, something Anderson described as unusual for a freshman.
"It's not normal that you rely on a freshman in the top of your lineup," Anderson said. "With her and Brooke Wilmes as the top two, one of them was bound to get on, so it's almost like we had two leadoff hitters. And Jenna, her entire career, has been a leadoff hitter, so she's had that mentality on how to get on base to do whatever is possible."
After hitting .469 in SEC play and helping her team make the NCAA Tournament, Laird was named the SEC Freshman of the Year. While winning the award was exciting, she knew she had to work harder to prove that she deserved the award once the postseason came around.
The first taste of postseason play for the New York native came in the SEC Tournament in Tuscaloosa, Ala. While she said the atmosphere with the fans returning was crazy, Anderson reminded the team that it was just softball and to do what they had to do.
Despite losing in the SEC Tournament to Florida, the Tigers hosted regionals and super regionals in 2021. Ultimately, they lost on the final day of supers to JMU, but Anderson believes hosting in the NCAA Tournament benefited Laird and the rest of Missouri's freshmen.
With her first college season now behind her, Laird has been working on her overall game to get bigger and stronger in order to have an impressive sophomore season.
"Now the pitchers are definitely going to know what I like to hit," Laird stated. "They're going to pitch around me just like I'm going to try and hit around them. No matter what, I'm still going to try and produce at the plate."
As Missouri prepares for the 2022 season, the future looks bright for the program and Laird looks to be a key piece in the Tigers' lineup for years to come.