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Wednesday, Apr. 06, 2011

Fueled by All-America snub, Costa steps up game

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Jennifer Costa never had any intention of leaving California, and certainly not for some tiny school she'd never heard of in an equally unfamiliar Kansas town.

So when MidAmerica Nazarene's Steve Babinski approached her at a showcase tournament in Colorado hoping to recruit her to join his softball team, she politely told him she had no interest in becoming a Pioneer.

“At that point, my goal was to stay in California,” Costa said.

A native of Escalon, Calif., a town of 7,000 in central California about 90 minutes south of Sacramento, she had played for two seasons at San Joaquin Delta Community College in nearby Stockton, Calif.

The idea of traveling more than 1,800 miles had no appeal, but as Costa's best-laid plans for continuing her softball career slowly crumbled she became more open to the idea.

“I had a few things fall through and after that I was looking for more of a coaching style than a school,” she said.

Noticing that she still hadn't signed with anyone, Babinski took a chance and reached out to Costa one more time.

“He called and told me he was definitely still interested and I thought he was a lot like my coach at community college, so it was a perfect fit,” she said.

Costa flew out to Olathe and instantly fell in love with MNU, which reminds her of Escalon because it's a close-knit and friendly community.

The marriage turned out splendid last season as Costa led the Pioneers to a 46-8 record and an appearance in the NAIA national tournament.

She led the team in average (.472), home runs (17), doubles (17), hits (76), RBIs (56) and runs (55) while also going 21-4 with two saves and a 1.56 ERA in 28 games as MNU's No. 2 pitcher.

Still, somehow when the postseason All-America list was released, Costa's name wasn't on it – not even as an honorable mention.

“It made me mad, needless to say, but you can't really control politics,” said Costa, a 22-year-old elementary education major. “That's what it came down, because people vote on those things. It hurt, but it lit a fire in me that I'm going to out with a bang this year.”

Not being included on the All-America list didn't diminish her accomplishments last season, but it has driven Costa to make sure that she's impossible to leave off the list in her final collegiate season.

So far, she's putting together a startling season for a Pioneers team that was 22-5 entering Tuesday's doubleheader at William Jewell and on pace to repeat as Heart of America Athletic Conference champions and also reach the NAIA national tourney again.

Costa leads the nation with 16 home runs – more than one per doubleheader – and a 1.186 slugging percentage. She's fourth in RBIs (45), sixth in total bases (102) and eighth in batting average (.512) with 33 runs scored already.

From the circle, Costa is 8-2 and her 1.15 ERA and 87 strikeouts rank among the top handful of pitchers in the country.

“I worked really hard in the offseason, but this season is still coming as a shock,” she admitted. It's funny, because now when I hit the home runs my teammates don't even get excited anymore. They just come out to the plate like, 'Oh, here we go, she hit another one.'”

Costa didn't start working with Barry Bonds' former trainer Greg Anderson or anything during the offseason, but she did retool her approach at the plate.

“I was just talking with coach (Babinski) about how last year I had the same power and about this time I was hitting just as many home runs, but they were all foul,” Costa said. “I was out in front of everything and was a dead pull hitter. Now, I am staying back on the ball and working up the middle more. It's a different focus.”

The Pioneers' focus also has changed.

Last year proved that anything is possible, but MNU wants another crack at pool play after winning only one of three games and failing to reach the eight-team, double-elimination bracket.

“We're definitely hoping we can take some people by surprise,” Costa said. “Our goal is just to that final eight and see what happens if we get there.”

Turns out, Kansas has grown on her a bit – at least the little slice of heaven she's found in Olathe.

“I love it. It's becoming a home away from home, except for the weather,” she said. “The weather has definitely been the biggest culture shock. We don't really get the four seasons in Escalon like we do here.”

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