Wiedmer: Kennesaw State success a Cross family tradition

Wiedmer: Kennesaw State success a Cross family tradition

June 27th, 2012 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Jessica Cross is seen in this file photo.

Jessica Cross is seen in this file photo.

Photo by D. Patrick Harding

What are the odds?

What are the odds that a 24-year-old college softball coach begins his program with a freshman class, then signs the daughter of one of those players to help launch the same school into its NCAA Division I era 21 years later?

Moreover, what are the odds that the daughter is the 2012 Atlantic Sun Conference player of the year five years after that?

"Probably doesn't happen very often," Kennesaw State softball coach Scott Whitlock said Tuesday afternoon.

But that's exactly what happened to Whitlock, who signed Ringgold's Luann Hackett in 1986 as the school was starting a slowpitch softball program, then signed her daughter, Jessica Cross, five years ago when the Owls made the move to Division I in fastpitch.

Cross's cousins Jensen and Jordan Hackett also have played for Whitlock at KSU.

"And if they've got any more Crosses and Hacketts up in Ringgold who play softball, I'd love to coach them, too," the coach said with a laugh over the phone.

Not that Jessica's recent graduation ends her immediate family's run of improving Kennesaw athletics.

Younger brother Colton Cross threw 47 innings as a freshman, finishing with a 4-2 record and 41 strikeouts while starting the A-Sun baseball tourney championship game against Belmont. When he left in the fifth inning, the game was tied at 2, but the Owls ultimately lost.

"Unfortunately, the baseball and softball teams were home at the same time only once all season," Luann said. "Because Jessica was a senior and Colton was a freshman, Jesse and I told him that we'd probably go watch her play more. But they did play the A-Sun softball tournament at USC-Upstate on the same weekend the Kennesaw baseball team was there, so we got to see them both that weekend."

Despite Luann's softball background, she said Jessica takes after her father, Jesse Cross, who along with Luann's brothers Joe and Roger were among the best players in the rich baseball history of Ringgold High School.

"I favor him a lot as a pitcher and a hitter," said Jessica, who finished her career with 58 home runs, batted .383 this season and drove home 41 runs for the Owls, who tied for the regular-season title with Florida Gulf Coast, which beat Kennesaw in the league tourney title game.

Cross also ended the season as KSU's closer after beginning it as a starter.

"Jessica Cross is one of the most unique talents that we have ever had at KSU," Whitlock said. "She started at three different positions this season and played each very well. She's a good pitcher, but she's one of the three best hitters I've ever coached."

Yet her character impresses him every bit as much as her talent.

"She's just a great young woman," he said. "Jessica's quiet, but when she speaks you need to listen."

Never was that more true than following the April tornadoes of 2011 that ravaged her hometown.

"We were playing at Georgia when it happened," she said. "I started getting texts asking if my family was OK. Until then, I didn't even know a tornado had hit Ringgold."

The Cross home was untouched, but Jessica quickly helped mobilize a food and clothing drive on the Kennesaw campus to help her community.

"Jessica's really grown as a person," Luann said of her daughter's five college years (she lost one season due to injury). "She used to lead by example only. Now she leads by communication, too. She's gained so much confidence."

Added Jesse, who once made the Minnesota Twins' 40-man roster: "Sports is such a job nowadays in college, but Jessica never looked at it that way. She's kept it fun. Her degree's in English and education, and I think she'll make a great teacher and coach."

Jessica agreed but added, "Right now I'm just looking for a job. I do think I'd like to teach and coach, but at this point I'll take anything."

Luann was anything but confident that her daughter would follow in her footsteps and sign with Whitlock.

"It came down to Georgia Tech or Kennesaw," she said. "Scott's one of those coaches who's tough to resist. He really cares about his players; he's very loyal to them. But he's also a guy you'll really like or you won't."

Jessica liked him, saying, "It just felt right."

Yet Whitlock sounded one very strong word of caution about the distant future at Kennesaw.

"I've loved coaching the Crosses and Hacketts," he said. "They've left a big mark on this school. But I won't be coaching LuAnn's grandchildren."

Perhaps not, but that doesn't mean Jessica and Colton couldn't return to Kennesaw one day to coach their kids or their cousins' kids. Having those Crosses and Hacketts around has certainly worked out well so far.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6273.