Reason to Play the Game : Titan Pitcher Mortensen Finds Inspiration in Her Beloved Grandfather

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Jennifer Mortensen has always enjoyed being part of a close-knit family. Her grandparents have lived with her and her parents since she was 7. She and her grandfather, in particular, developed a special relationship, partially built around their love of sports.

"He's the one who really got me going in softball," said Mortensen, now the star pitcher for the Cal State Fullerton team that begins play today in the NCAA regional softball playoffs at Northridge.

Mortensen's grandfather, 75-year-old Jack Hoffman, played double-A baseball in the St. Louis Cardinals organization, then boxed in the Navy, as well as professionally in his native Ohio, before settling into a job as a painter. He retired 13 years ago, giving him more time to be his granddaughter's biggest fan when she was playing on youth teams and at Torrance Bishop Montgomery High.

"I remember the day Jennifer brought home the flyer about the softball team. She was about 7 then, and Grandpa took her out that very day and signed her up," said Mortensen's mother, Peggy. "She started out as a catcher, then decided fairly quickly she wanted to pitch. My father was the one who decided she needed a pitching coach and helped arrange that."

Softball success followed Mortensen at every turn after that, from the days when she was a bright-eyed moppet just learning the game to today, when she is one of the Big West Conference's top pitchers. She set a Bishop Montgomery record for strikeouts, and then went off to play for Texas A&M; in 1992.

But that same year, Mortensen's grandfather was diagnosed as having lung cancer; a lung and a bronchial tube were removed. And at that point, with her family under so much stress, Mortensen decided she wanted to be closer to home, and she left A&M; after her freshman season.

"Her grandfather's illness was really the catalyst for her wanting to move back," her mother said. "They've always been very, very close. He and my mother were almost like surrogate parents with both my husband and I working."

Mortensen says she wanted to give her grandfather more opportunities to see her pitch. "When I was playing at home, he went to almost every game I played," she said. "He's been a real inspiration to me. He's the one who made me believe in myself. He told me that if you want something badly enough, you can always do it."

As things have turned out, Mortensen's grandfather appears to have battled back from cancer, although his activities are limited. And Mortensen is happy she transferred. The Titans are ranked 20th in the nation, and the 32-27 record is a tribute to the team's strong comeback after a slow start. Fullerton won 15 of its last 17 regular-season games and climbed to third in the conference with a 21-11 record.

Mortensen, a junior, has been the key figure all season, not just during the late surge.

"We still wouldn't have a season left without her," Coach Judi Garman said. "She's the big reason we're in the playoffs. When we were struggling early in the year, she was the one who held us together. She gave us the chance to win every game she's pitched for us. . . "

At a time when the team appeared to be falling apart all around her, Mortensen kept her cool. In an early game against Washington, the infield committed five errors in one inning. She also was the losing pitcher in a 7-6 loss to No. 1-ranked Arizona when the defense had six errors. She pitched a four-hitter against Long Beach State but lost, 5-4.

"She's set the tone for the rest of the team," Garman said. "She never gave up, even when things weren't going well earlier in the season. Even when she wasn't getting the support on defense, she kept encouraging everyone and never blamed the others."

Garman says Mortensen had to make a comeback of her own after a slow start in her first year at Fullerton in 1993.

"She didn't have the kind of season she had hoped for," Garman said. "She had to adjust to the new, livelier ball. She lost a game to Arizona on a home run last year in the PONY tournament and never seemed to recover from it."

Mortensen turned it around with a strong performance in the American Softball League season last summer. Her team, the Southern California Jazz, won the ASA women's A division championship. It was her third time on an ASA national championship team. The Southern California Raiders won the title in 1990 in the 16-and-under division with Mortensen as a pitcher. In the championship game, she got out of an inning with the bases loaded and none out to preserve a one-run lead.

"Playing ASA this summer was a big turning point for me," Mortensen said. "That let me get my confidence back. I pitched well all summer and that gave me a totally different attitude coming into this season. Last season I let things bother me a lot and I really struggled."

Mortensen is pleased with the way the team bounced back this season. "The defense especially has been playing so much better," she said. The Titans have committed only eight errors in their past 13 games, a far cry from earlier. Fullerton had 30 errors in its first 13 games.

And Mortensen has benefited. She has gone from 11-14 to 19-15. Her earned run average is 1.91, and she has 135 strikeouts in 234 innings.

The team's turnaround has made her, as well as Garman, more optimistic about the Titans' chances in the regional. Cal State Northridge (46-7) is top-rated in the field that also includes Maine (32-5) and Washington (43-17), Fullerton's first-round opponent.

"I'm really excited about the tournament," Mortensen said. "I think we have a good chance. I think we're competitive with both Northridge and Washington, although I don't know anything about Maine."

Mortensen is hopeful that her grandfather might even be able to join other family members at one of the regional games.

"A lot of what he's able to do outside depends so much on the weather," Peggy Mortensen said. "With his situation as it is, we have to be careful. He still has to be checked regularly, but the doctors have told us that he's free of any cancer at this point. He seems to be doing great."

And that, as far as Jennifer Mortensen is concerned, is the best comeback of all.

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