When Manhattan College softball coach Tom Pardalis got a commitment from Jenn Vazquez, there was no question he was adding a versatile player with tremendous upside.
But like with most freshman, Pardalis thought the former St. Joseph High School star’s contributions would be modest at the outset.
“I did not think she would make an impact her first year,” Pardalis said. “Especially since I brought her in as a catcher with the idea she could play first base. We have an All-League catcher who is a sophomore. I didn’t think Jenn would get a lot of playing time behind the plate.”
As those who followed the Cadets the last four years are well aware, Vazquez’s drive and skill set defy convention.
So it should come as no surprise that Vazquez immediately played her way into the Jaspers’ starting lineup, and is finishing up an outstanding rookie season. Playing mostly first base, with some spot time at catcher as well as a position she last played as a freshman at St. Joseph, Vazquez has put up up big numbers.
She is currently batting .299, is tied for fourth place in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference with 9 home runs and is fourth with 37 RBIs. Vazquez is preparing for a homecoming on Wednesday at noon, when Manhattan plays Iona in the conference playoffs at Fairfield University, less than a half mile from where she lived until a year ago.
“Actually I had no expectations for this year, coming to a team with so many talented players,” Vazquez said in a telephone interview Monday night, recalling a conversation she had with Jeff Babineau, her coach at St. Joseph, last summer. “He sat me down and said you were ‘it’ for St. Joseph softball and now you are going to a team where there are all girls who were ‘it’ for their teams.”
Vazquez has been an ‘it’ player for the Jaspers, one reason the team is back in the MAAC Tournament for the first time in three years.
“She’s gone above and beyond what I expected for a freshman,” said Pardalis, who has his own FCIAC ties as a former boys basketball coach both at Ridgefield and Danbury. “You don’t see freshmen come in to Division I and play like that.”
Vazquez was an All-FCIAC and All-State catcher for St. Joseph, but Pardalis already had a returning starter, Elena Bowman, who leads the Jaspers in home runs and RBIs.
“Once I knew she was coming here I told her to pick up a first baseman’s glove,” Pardalis recalled. “When I recruited her I watched her play a basketball game and I saw she had great footwork.”
It was one reason that when Pardalis lost both his starting second baseman and her backup, he moved Vazquez to the position for a few starts. Vazquez played second base as a freshman at St. Joseph — because Babineau had to find a way to get her into the lineup.
“I think going through it the first time definitely helped,” Vazquez said. “I miss catching. It was my only position for as long as I can remember. But I really like playing first and believe it or not I like playing second. As long as I’m in the lineup, I’ll play where he thinks is best.”
Vazquez said she had a rare bout of frustration during Manhattan’s fall season.
“I had a really rough fall,” she said. “I couldn’t see the ball, I was striking out left and right.”
Vazquez addressed the problem the same way she has dealt with rare previous setbacks: extra work.
“I had to see what I was doing wrong; I had to go back to basics. I spent time with the hitting coach and at BlueStreak,” Vazquez said, referring to the Stamford facility where she has trained for two years. “I went back to absolute basics. I just played the game like I did in high school. Same game, different level.”
Vazquez’s father, John, is a graduate of Manhattan.
“I’m really happy,” she said. “I love it here, the school and the team. I honestly couldn’t imagine being anywhere else.”
Pardalis said Vazquez’s impact has extended beyond the tangible. Her maturity allowed him to make a move he would otherwise be reluctant to: batting her in the cleanup spot.
“I didn’t want to put her there because I didn’t want to put pressure on her as a freshman,” Pardalis said. “She’s just done a great job. She’s got a great personality, fits in really well and loves to play. If I said I needed an outfielder she’d be out there. She doesn’t care where she plays, she just wants to play.”
Vazquez admitted she is looking forward to her return for Wednesday’s game in Fairfield, where she grew up before moving to Stamford last summer until a new family home in Greenwich is completed.
“I’m so excited; I can’t wait,” she said. “On my bio it says from Fairfield, Connecticut. “It’s going to be a lot of fun, with my family and friends, to play there again.”