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A Close(ly) guarded secret

Spotlight eludes Tornado senior, but not success

Jenny Close doesn't worry much about who gets the attention on her team.

The North Medford senior doesn't lose sleep scheming up ways to draw the spotlight.

She's not bothered when her teammates get the headlines or interviewed on television.

Close simply plays the game and -- whatever the sport -- plays it well.

Jenny is the epitome of what you would consider a team player, says North girls basketball coach Mike Kay. She brings success, maturity, confidence and hard work into practices and into your games.

Ultimate team player is the phrase softball coach Larry Binney uses.

One of her most valuable assets is that she has a real sense for how her teammates feel, Binney says. She knows when something needs to be said and knows when to let things ride.

Close has been an integral part of two successful programs and yet is often overlooked because she quietly goes about her business.

She's been out with teammates when someone would tell them they had seen North play ball and not realize she was on the team.

It's really never gotten to me, to tell the honest truth, Close says. I'm just happy to be out there. I'm not out there for people to know I'm out there playing. But it is nice if someone comes up and said `You did a good job yesterday.'

Fans take notice of the .400-hitter who swats the ball a mile or the flashy guard with a 20-point average. But the fielder with a steady glove, throwing to the right base and sacrificing runners with a nifty bunt doesn't excite the crowd. Neither does the kid setting a pick, taking the charge or guarding an opponent so tightly they never see the ball.

That's part of the reason Close gets overlooked.

I think my mind works that way, she says. I know defense pretty well, but I've always struggled driving to the basket.

I think that's why I've been on varsity (since her freshman year when she swung between JV and varsity). I work hard and have been sound defensively.

Sound defense is one reason Close, Megumi Hackett, Steph Adams and Kylie Allen have a shot at doing what few high school athletes in any sport pull off next month. If the Black Tornado reaches the June 6 softball finals, the foursome will be making an appearance in four state championship games in the same sport.

My freshman year just coming in and getting to the state championship game was a high, recalls Close, who collected one of three hits the Tornado had in a 3-0 loss to Hood River Valley in 1996.

We were co-champs my sophomore year and the next year we were able to top that. This year we're trying to beat our own records. With Larry (Binney) retiring, that propels us even more. We want to win not just for us, but for him too.

Close lettered three years in basketball, playing significant roles in last year's state tournament team and this year's SOC co-champion.

All teams have their stars, Kay says. But it's not individuals that make you successful. Jenny is the kind of kid that puts you over the top. She's one of the most unselfish kids I've been around. I wish I had 10 Jennys. I wish all kids had that unselfish attitude.

Close plays first base much of the time, but often moves to left field when opponents' top hitters step to the plate. She's also the Tornado's backup catcher. When Close swaps places with Jill Carrigan -- often in mid-inning -- it's not without hazard. Against Roseburg last month, Close was tossing her glove to assistant coach Rod Rumrey when Brynnen Guthrie lashed a base hit up the middle.

Turns out the base umpire gave the Tornado a timeout and didn't relay the message to the plate umpire.

With a left-handed batter up, that was kind of scary, Close says. That could've ended up bad without a glove.

Fortunately, the ball was hit back up the middle.

Close has been an outstanding base runner for four years. But her bat has been coming around this spring.

Close hit .305 as a sophomore and dropped to .223 last year. But she's on course to better her previous high. Through last weekend, she was hitting .431 with a pair of home runs. She also has 16 stolen bases and has scored 16 runs.

Stat-wise, Jenny has been overshadowed by Steph Adams and Megumi Hackett, Binney says. But what she gives to North Medford athletics is more than points scored, runs, scored and base hits. She just helps us win.

She also lettered in volleyball as a freshman and only begrudgingly gave up the sport when time constraints forced her hand. Nonetheless, she nearly ended up playing on last fall's volleyball team that placed third in state.

Volleyball coach Ron Beick asked her if she wanted to play a defensive specialist role. Close would have, but she got a better offer when Hackett invited her to spend two-and-a-half weeks visiting her relatives in Japan.

I almost wish I didn't have to make a choice, Close says. Those girls did very well. Obviously, I wish I could've been a part of that. It was very tempting and if I hadn't had a one-time opportunity, I probably would've played.

And no doubt would've contented herself in a supportive role.

Versatile Jenny Close plays first base, left field and catches for top-ranked North Medford.