Here’s a question not every college softball player would understand, and it will tell a little bit about the special journey of Jenavee Peres. What’s more taxing, a long and arduous practice — or trying to keep up with a 22-month-old son all day during a coronavirus quarantine?
Pretty easy call, she said over the phone from California.
“He goes and goes and goes and does not stop until his battery completely runs out. It’s hard trying to keep him inside, but we manage. I’m trying to start a little bit of a pre-pre-school with him, where we sit down every morning and we color and I’m continuing to teach him letters and colors. I had to go out and buy blocks. They make me want to pull my hair out, but they keep him occupied.”
Peres was the All-American who became a mother. And then the mother who became a player again. Now she’s like so many other athletes this spring — hunkered down at home, working on her classes and her game. But there’s something else on her daily to-do list, too. He’s a toddler named Levi.
To appreciate where Peres is going, we should remember where she’s been.
By 2017, she had put together shining numbers in three years as a catcher at San Diego State — a .409 average, 34 home runs, 131 RBI. Mountain West player of the year. Her senior season would cap a glorious career. But then . . .
She found out she was expecting during winter break. When she graduated in the spring, she was nine months pregnant. The little guy came along on June 24, 2018, at nine pounds and 11 ounces, after 36 hours of labor and a C-section. She had used a medical redshirt for the 2018 season, and then went to work as both a new mother and a dispatcher for a security firm. Softball, she figured, was a closed chapter in her life. Time to move on.
But then the phone rang last autumn, and UCLA was on the line, wondering if she might want to attend grad school, spending her last year of eligibility with the defending national champions. Peres pondered the idea and decided she’d like to try for several reasons — her own sense of unfinished business, an example one day for her son, and a chance to prove what a mother could do, if she set her mind to it.
By early March, all was well. The Bruins were 25-1 and ranked No. 1. She had hit .345 in nine starts with four homers. She was making steady progress on her master’s degree in transformative coaching and leadership, and her support system was in place for Levi, led by her family. She’d go to practice, stay an hour or two afterward to complete class work, then head home to be a mother again. Who cares if it meant a near-daily commute on the clogged freeway from Orange County to UCLA’s campus in Westwood?
“Surreal,” she called the experience. “No one thought I would be there. Shoot, I didn’t even think I’d be there.”
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But during one of those commutes, UCLA coach Kelly Inouye-Perez called to tell her to return home, and the team would soon have a virtual meeting. She feared what was coming. Sports everywhere were shutting down because of the coronavirus, and that included the top-ranked team in college softball.
“I went home and Facetimed into the meeting, and it was kind of heartbreaking — actually not kind of — extremely heart-breaking for all of us,” Peres said. “I’m usually one that’s pretty adaptable and I’m fairly good with change usually, but this specific change has been pretty hard. I had just gotten softball back, and then I kind of had it taken away again.”
Now she’s back to work as a dispatcher, doing her homework at night when Levi has gone to sleep, and getting in some softball work when she can in the backyard. “My boyfriend is pretty good at catching the ball,” she said. “He only gets hit sometimes.”
With the NCAA adding an extra year of eligibility for this spring’s seniors, she’s hoping to get back to UCLA next season. And then what, with her love for the sport rekindled? “Given everything that I have on my plate right now it might be something I want to pursue in the future, just because everything has changed and my priorities have changed a little bit, and it’s kind of opened up my eyes to coaching again.”
But the road can always have a curve or two. She knows that well enough. Whatever happens she’ll always have this spring, even if it was cut short. The second chance came to mean even more to her than she thought it would, once she realized the effort it would take.
“It’s so fulfilling for me. Everyone knows I didn’t get to finish my career at San Diego State because I had gotten pregnant with Levi. So coming back made me feel kind of like myself, because I’m an athlete at heart. I’m not only a softball player. An athlete is who I am,” she said.
“I’m so glad that I’m able to be a little bit of an advocate for mothers, or just anybody who goes through a struggle in general. It means a little bit more to me too because I got so much love. Across the country, girls messaged me on Instagram and tried to contact me, saying I was such an inspiration to them. Moms have reached out. Even single fathers across the country, they’re inspired too. It’s amazing I could bring a little bit of hope to people across the country.”
Think what she could do with an entire season. Maybe next year. Peres hopes next year, anyway. The niece of Pittsburgh Steeler Hall of Famer Troy Polamalu knows exactly where she longs to be. “I’m so proud to be a Bruin and I want to be a Bruin as long as I can.”
But for now, of course, there are blocks to pick up.