As coaches across all levels will tell you, some athletes just have “it.” The “it factor” can mean a lot of things, but in most cases it tends to be an amalgam of exemplary leadership on the field and fantastic character displayed off it.
Dan Milio is only in the early stages of his second season as Little Flower’s softball coach, but it didn’t take him long to figure out that the levels on senior first baseman Jenna Markocki’s it-factor meter were exploding.
For starters, Markocki has held up the ‘student’ part of student-athlete, racking up a near-perfect 3.9 grade point average in the classroom. On the field, she’s coming off a breakout season in which she was named Second-Team All-Catholic, helping guide Little Flower to the postseason semifinals. She also works two part-time jobs — one at Primo’s Hoagies and the other at a tanning salon, going above-and-beyond the normal expectations for someone her age.
Not only that, but Markocki has helped adopt the role of cheerleader for her mother, Donna, who was recently diagnosed with ovarian cancer after having beaten leukemia a decade ago. Keeping all of this in mind, it’s no wonder that Markocki said, “Even though I wasn’t named a (team) captain, I do still take the role as one.”
That’s the kind of maturity that can’t be taught, one that still blows Milio away each and every day he spends around his first baseman.
“It’s very admirable to see what she does,” Milio said. “She could have easily given up on her grades because she saw her mom was sick, but she still maintains a high GPA and comes to practice every day to work hard and not just to go through the motions. She’s stood out because the way the girls gravitate toward her. It’s noticeable. She’s done everything that’s been asked of her, and she’s led by example. When the girls behind her see how hard she works, there’s a trickle-down effect.”
And alhough the situations are not necessarily parallel from a medical standpoint, Milio, the father of a 4-year-old son with Down syndrome, found an emotional comparison and connection through Markocki and her mother’s health issues.
“It’s a different illness, but to see how she handles the situation with her mom … it’s nothing but respect, a mutual respect we have for each other,” Milio said.
For her part, Markocki said she’s just giving back to her biggest supporter. When Donna was diagnosed with Leukemia a decade ago, she was given just two weeks to live. But despite the grim prognosis, Donna got up from her deathbed and kept living, inspiring Jenna to make the most of every day she’s rewarded with.
“She works two full-time jobs while receiving chemo treatments and still finds the strength to give my brothers and me everything we need in life,” Markocki said. “She’s the main inspiration as to why I play softball. Watching me play is her favorite thing to do. We’re more like best friends. I don’t think I would have stuck with it if not for her.”
It’s a good thing she did, as Markocki recently made the decision to continue her career as a student-athlete at La Salle University in the fall. She chose La Salle because the campus gave her that “at home” feeling, the same one she felt when she first visited Little Flower almost four years ago. Markocki said she’s learned to balance her time with all of her extracurricular activities, something that should ensure being ahead of the curve once she arrives at La Salle.
“Sometimes, it’s stressful and I’m almost always in a rush,” she said. “But it’s always worth it in the end.”
Something else Markocki hopes is worth it in the end is the 2014 Little Flower softball season. After the under-the-radar Sentinels went on a run in last year’s postseason, Milio said it was Markocki who reined the team in and made sure their heads didn’t get too big after beating Archbishop Wood; when Little Flower was eliminated, Milio’s returning leader immediately pushed the focus to taking care of unfinished business the following season.
“The girls listen to her because they know she’s taking them where they want to be,” Milio said. “Whoever wears No. 19 next year will have big shoes to fill, because not everyone can be as good as Jenna Markocki.”
Before her time at Little Flower is done, Markocki still has goals she hopes to accomplish. Besides the obvious one of becoming a Catholic League champion, she said she wants to make sure all the underclassmen are as comfortable as she was when she was a freshman or sophomore. She makes players feel welcome by offering young varsity or JV players rides to the practice field, which goes a long way in building team camaraderie.
Little Flower may not be known as a championship sports factory, but Markocki’s gritty toughness embodies the type of student-athlete the school tries to attract. Like Little Flower, Markocki has no problem working for whatever comes her way.
“Last year when we made it to the semifinals, it was the best feeling,” she said. “It would be amazing if we won. I don’t want anything else than to win the title this year.”
It won’t be easy, but the Sentinels don’t expect it to be. They wear maroon T-shirts with the new team mantra of ‘Whatever It Takes’ printed on them, and the girls on the team mean it. After what Markocki deals with every day on a personal basis, no goal on the field seems unattainable.
“A lot of athletes have talent, and some think they can get by on just that,” Milio said. “Jenna has the heart that most just don’t have. She has talent, but her heart is bigger than that talent. At Little Flower, she’s an elder spokesman, but in real life we have to remind ourselves that she’s just a kid. She has a confidence and swagger about her, and she’ll bust her butt to earn your respect.
“If she isn’t starting at La Salle next year, then the girl in front of her will have earned her spot. She’s not going there just to give it away.”
And though he’s still relatively new on the job, Milio has a pretty good understanding of Little Flower student-athletes, and Markocki is the face of the attitude and spirit the school has become known for.
“We’re like the Rocky Balboa of the Catholic League,” Milio said. “We’re underdogs, and we don’t expect you to hand us anything. We’ll go out and fight tooth and nail for everything; that’s the mentality Jenna has. You don’t have to like us, but at the end of the day you will respect us because of the hard work and effort we put in. If we lose, then we’re going to make the other team earn that win.”
Like any high school student, Markocki marveled at how fast the last four years flew by, though it’s not as surprising when one considers just how much she has on her plate. But according to her, all of that is fine, and she doesn’t want to be treated any differently because of her circumstances.
“I just try to do my best each game to help all the girls be into the game and have team spirit,” she said. “Personally, I feel my role is to do whatever is needed of me. I’ll never give up on the girls and I’ll never let them down. I do not see it as a weight on my shoulders to perform perfectly in every game.
“Coming here to Little Flower every day to play softball is what I look forward to. I could be in the worst mood all day, then I come to practice and my teammates just snap me out of it. We’ve worked so hard to where we’re at now, and I’m so happy we view ourselves as a serious softball contender in this league. I feel I speak for all of us when I say I’ll definitely miss softball, but I’ll miss all of these girls the most.” ••