‘That kid is a superstar’: How Rylee Jensen, who paced BYU to an NCAA Regional, exceeded all expectations
Last week, Jensen broke four BYU records, becoming No. 1 all-time in runs scored, doubles, games played and games started. Thursday, the Cougars open NCAA tourney play against Virginia Tech
Outfielder Rylee Jensen’s debut as a BYU softball player in February 2017 caught the eye of a coach from the National Pro Fastpitch League while the Cougars opened the season in a tournament in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.
The coach, who was there scouting, approached BYU coach Gordon Eakin midway through the tournament.
Cougars on the air
vs. Virginia Tech (33-13)
Thursday, 5:30 p.m. MDT
“Your left fielder, Rylee, when she graduates, I want her to play for us,” she told Eakin. “That kid is a superstar.”
Four-plus years later, Jensen has proven that coach prophetic.
Last week, the 5-foot-8 senior broke four school records, becoming No. 1 all-time in runs scored, doubles, games played and games started at BYU. Jensen, the Cougars’ leadoff hitter, is batting .400 with 18 home runs and 40 RBI this season.
“Her talent was a hidden thing until she hit the scene and everybody got to see her play,” Eakin said.
On Thursday (5:30 p.m. MDT, ESPN3), Jensen will lead the Cougars into the NCAA Tournament.
BYU (36-15) faces Virginia Tech (33-13) at Alberta B. Farrington Stadium in Tempe, Arizona, home of regional host Arizona State.
Eakin admits that at first he had no idea how good Jensen would be. A native of Idaho Falls, Idaho, Jensen was unheralded coming out of high school.
“She has exceeded my expectations. Being from Idaho, she didn’t play on the top-level travel teams. She wasn’t a known commodity out there,” Eakin said. “The only way we knew about her was she came to our camp. What I recognized at camp was that she was an extremely good athlete.
When she first came on our radar, I had no idea, nor did anybody else, that she would be the type of player she is. Or everybody in the country would have been after her.” — Gordon Eakin
“As a coach, you can do a lot with good athletes,” he continued. “I knew that she was a kid that had a chance to be really good. When she first came on our radar, I had no idea, nor did anybody else, that she would be the type of player she is. Or everybody in the country would have been after her.”
As Jensen enters the final stage of her BYU career, she’s grateful for the time she’s spent in Provo.
“It’s been unforgettable. I wouldn’t trade it for the world,” she said. “If I had to go back and do it again, I’d do the exact same thing. I’ve been super lucky to be part of such a great program.”
The Cougars have been lucky to have her, too.
“She’s irreplaceable. She’s a once-in-a-lifetime type of player. She’s been, from Day One, the engine of our offense. When Rylee goes, we go. And she’s on a lot,” said Eakin, who received WCC Coach of the Year honors this week. “She’s the catalyst of everything we do offensively.
“Those players that can do that from Day One don’t come along very often in our game. Usually there are slumps along the way. But Rylee has been so consistent. She’s a joy to coach. She hits .400 and she’s not happy with that. She wonders why she’s not hitting .600.”
Now, Jensen and her teammates are looking to help BYU advance to the Super Regionals for just the second time in school history. The Cougars’ only Super Regional appearance happened in 2010.
Last week, BYU clinched its 12th consecutive West Coast Conference championship to earn an automatic bid to the NCAAs. Overall, this marks the Cougars’ 16th straight NCAA bid.
“When all the seniors leave in previous years they say, ‘Hey, don’t mess up the conference championship streak,’” Jensen said. “It’s a weight off our shoulders knowing we didn’t mess it up. Super Regionals has been one of my personal goals throughout all four years here. We’ve been close so many times. But I feel like this team could be the one.”
Eakin said this team has all the elements to advance — pitching, hitting and defense. Jensen aside, the Cougars are loaded with talent. Outfielder Violet Zavodnik was named both the WCC Freshman and WCC Player of the Year, the first time a player has earned both awards in the same season in WCC history. Autumn Moffat-Korth earned WCC Pitcher of the Year recognition.
“We’re deeper than we’ve ever been. We have a powerful offense, we have speed and we have good arms on defense. We have good arms on the mound,” Eakin said. “Definitely, this is a team that can get to the Super Regional. We have that kind of talent. But you have to play well. On paper, competing against the top teams in the country, we definitely can get back to a Super Regional.”
“Definitely, this is a team that can get to the Super Regional. We have that kind of talent.” — Gordon Eakin
The first obstacle standing in BYU’s way is Virginia Tech, which boasts Atlantic Coast Conference Pitcher of the Year Keely Rochard. Rochard ranks No. 3 nationally in strikeouts with 299.
If the Cougars can get past the Hokies, a likely matchup with No. 15 Arizona State looms Friday. BYU is eyeing a rematch with the Sun Devils, who beat the Cougars in the first two games of the 2021 season.
“They’re a different team now,” Jensen said of ASU. “Everyone on our team is like, ‘Revenge. We have unfinished business at Arizona State.’ But we’ve got to beat Virginia Tech first.”
“Right now, we’re 100% focused on Virginia Tech. You can’t get to Game 2 if you don’t get out of Game 1,” Eakins said. “One of the luxuries we have is, we’ve played Arizona State twice this year. We have experience against their pitchers and hitters.”
The Cougars are happy about being sent to a regional that’s relatively close to home in Arizona, rather than being shipped out to the East Coast.
And BYU is rolling, having won 24 of its last 26 games after opening the season with an 11-13 record.
“We’ve got a lot of freshmen that didn’t get to experience this last year,. Postseason is special and I’m excited for those girls to experience what I’ve experienced for three years.” — Rylee Jensen
“We think we drew a really good regional,” Jensen said. “We’re excited and feel like we’re playing really good ball right now.”
After getting cut short last season due to the pandemic, the Cougars are glad to be back in the tournament.
“It’s been great to play and bring a sense of normalcy to our lives since February,” Eakin said. “It’s been a journey of resiliency and new things. We’re so grateful for the chance to play.”
“We’ve got a lot of freshmen that didn’t get to experience this last year,” Jensen said. “Postseason is special and I’m excited for those girls to experience what I’ve experienced for three years.”
Eakin marvels at what Jensen has accomplished during her BYU career.
“Right from the start, even the Pro Fastpitch organization said she was going to be great,” Eakin said. “How that will play out with Rylee in her life, I don’t know. Did I know right from the start about her? No. But no one else did, either.”