She cracked up. "I couldn't help it. I

By Allen Moff Record-Courier staff writer Published:

She cracked up.

"I couldn't help it. I just start laughing," said the Kent State softball team's junior centerfielder, with a wide smile, after practice at Kent Softball Field on Thursday. "I laughed all the way to first base. I couldn't believe they'd be scared enough of me to walk me, but it was so great. I don't really see myself as that threatening."

Not that threatening?

A Mid-American Conference-leading .425 batting average and school-record 11 home runs, 41 runs scored and 43 runs batted in doesn't qualify you as a threat?

"I don't even keep track of my stats," said Jones. "I'm just having fun."

And in Jones' eyes, having fun is all that truly matters.

Because her first two seasons with the Golden Flashes weren't exactly a barrel of laughs.

Jones came to Kent expecting to pick up right where she left off as a senior at Sparks High School in Nevada, where she hit a school-record 21 career home runs and earned prep All-American honors twice.

She won the right-field job and started all 49 games as a freshman for the Flashes in 1997, but batted just .232 with four home runs and 14 runs batted in. Her numbers improved slightly during her sophomore campaign, when she started 54 games and hit .245 with four homers and 27 RBI.

In the eyes of her teammates and coaches, Jones was solid but not spectacular. But Jones' self-assessment was slightly more critical.

"I was horrible," said Jones, with a rare serious look. "I was so bad, I really thought they were going to take my scholarship away. I wasn't hitting, I was striking out a lot, doing things I'd never done in high school."

Jones admits she let the failures linger and get her down.

"I knew I could do much better, and that's why I was so depressed," she said. "I was coming up short and I didn't know why, so I started pressing and thinking negatively. Softball was no fun for me those first two years.

"But this year, I decided I wasn't going to let that happen anymore. I made an attitude adjustment."

That adjustment is the main reason Jones has made an abrupt rise from the ranks of average college softball player to legitimate MAC Player of the Year and All-American candidate.

"Denae put a lot of added pressure on herself her first two years," said Kent coach Karen Linder. "Now she's a lot more confident and relaxed. Before she would really let mistakes get to her inside, but now she shrugs them off. Her confidence doesn't get shaken any more."

Opposing pitchers have been doing the shaking in '99 instead of Jones.

Kent's cleanup hitter, who physically looks like anything but a cleanup hitter, will carry an .875 slugging percentage and .534 on-base percentage into today's doubleheader at Bowling Green on the strength of 25 extra-base hits and 28 walks.

"She just hits every pitch hard, no matter what it is or where it's at," said Linder. "She's not that big, but she's actually one of the two strongest players on our team along with Jamie Kraus. Power is generated by strength and speed, and Denae has both along with quick hands."

Of course Jones had just about as much power, speed and quickness the past two years, but she didn't produce anything remotely resembling the numbers she's putting up in '99.

What's the difference?

"I think it's all attitude. I really do," said Jones. "I realize now that if I don't get a hit, the world's not going to go dark. I'm not worried or afraid of failing anymore. I'm much more relaxed, and so is the rest of the team and the coaches.

"That's the difference this year. We're all just having fun."

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