Sports

The (Not So) Bitter End

Jayden Russell's all-state softball career ended with an injury, but the Flathead senior is still smiling

Jayden Russell plans to study dentistry in college.

If things go well, she could see herself as an orthodontist further down the road, turning the uneven grins of timid teenagers into wide, toothy, confident smiles. In fact, the ebullient Flathead High School catcher explains that she, once upon a time, was one of those youngsters fitted with corrective braces, and for her those were happy days. She says, earnestly, that she loved her orthodontist.

“I don’t know,” she adds. “I’ve always been that weird kid that just loves going to the dentist.”

Russell also loves smiling, something she’s been doing for the better part of the last hour at Kidsports Complex, first into a camera lens and later as she chats on a sun-splashed afternoon while her teammates begin practice in the distance. She smiles and laughs recounting stories from her childhood, stories of mishaps on the softball field — including a single, forgettable inning as a pitcher — and stories of chatting up umpires on and off the diamond.

That she is smiling today shouldn’t, under normal circumstances, be surprising. Her coach, Jack Foster, called her an “upbeat kid,” and the first words her mother, Jennifer, uses to describe her are predictable at this point.

“She loves to smile,” says Jennifer Russell.

But what is surprising is that today, despite a plethora of reasons not to, Jayden still has a smile on her face. That’s because one week earlier, in the midst of another losing season and just days before she was to put on a Bravettes uniform in front of friends and family to celebrate her senior day, Jayden Russell’s high school softball career came to a sudden, violent end.

Despite being born into a diminutive frame, Russell is remarkably strong: a dedicated weightlifter and gym rat who won a powerlifting competition in Helena earlier this year. She stands just 5-foot-2 with a physique that looks more centerfielder than backstop, but crouching behind the dish is where Russell has spent almost all of the last three years since moving back to Kalispell from Boise, Idaho when her father, Ronald, retired from the military.

“The first thing that always comes to mind is she’s tough as nails,” Foster said. “Being a catcher you get beat up; it takes its toll on you. She takes a beating and she just keeps going.”

When she’s not taking a beating catching, Russell has spent most of her Flathead career inflicting pain on softballs from the batter’s box. After hitting .452 with 19 extra-base hits in a remarkable sophomore season, she earned all-state honors in 2017 as a junior when she spent every inning but one during a 21-game season behind the plate. Foster, who is in his 19th season as a high school coach and has a state championship (in Post Falls, Idaho) to his name, said Russell is one of the best he’s ever been around.

“She’s offensively as good of a kid as I’ve had over the years,” he said. “She’s very patient, she makes sure she gets strikes, and even as small as she is, she’s a strong kid … She’s our fastest kid, too.”

Russell’s relentless positivity, military-bred toughness and incredible on-field acumen made her a strong candidate to fill a leadership role, and unsurprisingly she’s served with aplomb as one of Flathead’s captains the last two seasons.

“She kind of sets the tone for everything,” Foster said. “She does all the little things; she’s a leader more by example than anything.”

“Being a leader, you can’t make yourself higher or better than (teammates),” Russell said. “I want to be somebody they can trust, they can come up and talk to if they have a problem.”

The Bravettes went just 2-19 in 2017, and while Flathead is 4-15 entering the playoffs this year, Russell was starting to see things turning in the right direction through the first 15 games. She was having the best season of her career, batting .459 with three home runs and a double-take-inducing .636 on-base percentage from the leadoff spot. And while Flathead wasn’t winning much, the Bravettes were hanging with some of the state’s best teams and sowing the seeds of future success. That’s something Russell, whose mom played softball at Flathead and whose grandmother is also an alumnus, would love to see.

“I’m a Flathead Bravette and I always will be,” Russell said. “I’ll be cheering them on.”

What Russell didn’t want, though, was to have turned cheerleader so soon.

Catcher Jayden Russell rises to make a throw during crosstown softball between Flathead and Glacier on April 17, 2018. Justin Franz | Flathead Beacon

Back at sunny Kidsports, with the varsity and junior varsity squads running through their warmups, Russell is still smiling confidently when she gets to the hard part of the story.

“So I’ve got to be honest with you,” she says, without breaking stride. “I went through a few mental breakdowns … The night that it first happened I thought I was going to die. I was so miserable.”

“I was like three feet away when it happened,” Foster said. “When it happened, I was thinking, ‘This isn’t good.’ You feel bad for her; she’s put in so much work and so much time. You hate to see the season end this way for her.”

To fully appreciate what happened, the story starts two years ago when Russell was getting ready to face Glacier’s all-state pitcher Ali Williams late in her sophomore season. She and her teammates cranked up the velocity on a pitching machine and moments later a wayward softball smashed into the side of Russell’s head. She suffered a concussion that ended that season.

Fast-forward to May 1 of this year and, in a non-conference game at Columbia Falls, Russell was sliding into third base when a forceful tag caught her high on her chest and her head snapped back, smacking viciously onto the hard dirt.

“I don’t even necessarily remember how I got from the ground over to the bench,” Russell said. “But in my head, since I have had a concussion before, I knew as soon as it happened … I knew that it was over, essentially.”

Russell spent the next two days out of school, sitting in a dark, electronics-free bedroom while her parents and younger brother, Tanner, were out of the house. She was eventually administered a concussion test by Flathead’s athletic trainer and referred to a neurologist, who confirmed what she had feared.

“The conclusion,” Russell said, finding a sliver of humor, “is I am dunzo.”

The impact on the Bravettes was profound and immediate. Flathead has not won since Russell’s injury and must win two of three from rival Glacier on May 17 to keep its season going.

“I remember when I was sitting on the bench after it all happened, (my teammates) were like, ‘Well, there goes our season,’” she said. “And it hurts me, because I want to be out there and I want to help them.”

She returned to practice on May 8, the same day she received confirmation that her year was over, and just being back around her teammates seemed to give the Bravettes a boost.

“We had a good bounce in our step,” Foster said of that day’s practice. “Just having her around — because she’s an upbeat kid and she wants to be a part of everything — that’s pretty cool.”

Two days after coming back to practice, Russell did get to have a senior day moment. She walked across the diamond with her mom, dad, grandmother and younger brother, and soaked in applause between games of a doubleheader against Glacier.

“It was definitely bittersweet,” Jennifer Russell said. “But she continues to amaze me, honestly. She tries to focus on the bigger picture and as much as she is bummed that she’s not there for her team, she’s trying to be there emotionally for support, and be there for practice and games.”

A to-be-determined college in Idaho is in Jayden’s future, and if she is given the medical go-ahead she does plan to attempt to walk on to the team at whatever school she’s attending. What she won’t do, however, is lose sight of what she could be putting at risk.

“I want to go to dental school,” she said, smiling. “So I kind of need a brain if I’m working on people’s teeth.”

andy@flatheadbeacon.com

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