September 3, 2014

Medina
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Hall of Fame: Jessica Toocheck’s humble heart carried her to success

Former Medina High and Kent State standout Jessica Toocheck will be inducted into the Medina County Sports Hall of Fame during June 12 ceremonies at The Galaxy Restaurant in Wadsworth. (RON SCHWANE / GAZETTE)

Former Medina High and Kent State standout Jessica Toocheck will be inducted into the Medina County Sports Hall of Fame during June 12 ceremonies at The Galaxy Restaurant in Wadsworth. (RON SCHWANE / GAZETTE)

She remembers the time she struck out with the bases loaded against Walsh Jesuit.

She remembers getting promoted to the Medina High varsity softball team as a freshman and having such a bad first practice that she got sent right back down to the junior varsity.

She remembers herself as a lousy high school basketball player and too short to make much of an impact on the volleyball court.

Jessica Toocheck, however, is not a negative person. In fact, the 27-year-old, who will be inducted into the Medina County Sports Hall of Fame during June 12 ceremonies at The Galaxy Restaurant in Wadsworth, is one of the most positive, upbeat, fun-loving people around.

It’s just that she’s also very, very humble and expects a lot out of herself.

That was true when she picked up four letters in volleyball, four in basketball and three in softball while earning 2004 Gazette Senior Female Athlete of the Year honors at Medina, it was true when she was named Mid-American Conference Player of the Year as a senior shortstop at Kent State, it was true when she spent two seasons playing professionally for the Akron Racers and it’s true now that she’s coaching varsity softball at her high school alma mater and serving as a special education teacher in the district.

“I have high expectations,” Toocheck said. “My parents (Sam and Dave) always instilled in me to strive to be the best. I’ve always wanted to do things to please my parents, my coaches, my teammates. I don’t want to settle for anything that would disappoint anyone.

“As an athlete, I just went out and had fun. I played for the love of the game. But to me, it was just a game and I wanted to make the most of it. I was grateful for my opportunities, but I always thought there were people that were better than me.”

There weren’t many.

The 5-foot-6, 150-pound Toocheck was an All-Gazette choice in all three sports she played at Medina, including MVP in softball as a senior.

At Kent State, she started 209 straight games in her four-year career and led the team in hitting (.342), home runs (12), slugging percentage (.665), on-base percentage (.448), walks (29) and triples (4) while tying a school record with 48 RBIs as a senior.

For good measure, she carried a 3.9 grade-point average in college and was extremely popular with teammates and coaches.

“You immediately think teacher/coach when you see someone like her,” said Al DiTommaso, Toocheck’s softball coach at Medina. “It all fits together perfectly.

“She is great to be around, no matter what it is. She’s the same person now as she was 10 years ago. She’s energetic, she’s positive, she works hard. She’s her biggest critic. She never gives herself any credit.”

Others heap that credit upon Toocheck, all of them speaking in glowing, heartfelt terms.

Here’s Corey Bernard, who graduated from Medina with Toocheck, was her high school softball teammate for two years and is now her JV coach: “She’s very bubbly, very charismatic. She’s always been that person that people flock to. It’s that ‘X’ factor. She’s that person people just want to be around.

“In her eyes, she was never as good as we all knew she was. It could be her birthday and she hates the attention. She never wanted to be that person that stood out. She truly believed it was a team effort.”

Here’s Lauren Brocklehurst, who is two years younger than Toocheck, played softball with her for two seasons each at Medina and Kent State and now serves as her varsity assistant: “She was the same as a player as she is as a coach. She always gives the credit to someone else. She’s the most humble person I’ve ever known.”

And here’s Jill Gigliotti, a year younger than Toocheck but her Medina softball teammate for two years and, like Bernard and Brocklehurst, still a very close friend: “I look up to her. I know our other friends do as well. She’s just a person you want on your side.

“She would never put herself on a pedestal. I wouldn’t have even found out about her getting this award if it hadn’t been posted on Facebook. A lot of us find ourselves telling her to give herself some credit for the things she does, but she won’t.”

Un-Bee-lievable

As a kid growing up in Pittsburgh, Toocheck was always in the backyard or a nearby park playing slowpitch softball, baseball, basketball, football or kickball, often with her brother Chad, two years her junior. She even dabbled in hockey and competitive cheerleading for a bit.

When her family moved to Medina prior to her seventh-grade year — she attended A.I. Root — Toocheck took up fastpitch and swimming.

“In the eighth grade, I said I wasn’t going to play (softball) anymore because they threw too hard in high school,” she said. “(DiTommaso) pushed me toward it. I was more scared than excited about the possibility of playing.”

Toocheck played varsity volleyball and basketball as a Medina freshman, but was on the junior varsity softball team until getting called up, temporarily, midway through the year.

“That first practice (with the varsity) was the worst practice of my life,” she said. “I went right back down to JV. It didn’t take long.”

Toocheck wound up pinch-running several times for the varsity as the Bees finished 20-5 and won a Pioneer Conference title, then spent the next three years lettering in three sports.

She was good enough to be All-Gazette in all three, but it quickly became evident softball was her best sport. Not blessed with amazing size, strength or speed, Toocheck more than made up for it with a rocket arm, remarkable hand-eye coordination, incredible instincts and an unrelenting drive to succeed.

“What immediately jumped out at anyone, not just me, was her energy and enthusiasm,” DiTommaso said. “Anything she did, she did at 100 mph.

“She was great. She did what every coach would want a player to do. Not only did she play the (shortstop) position well and take the right angles and be in the right spot, she also commanded the field. She was a leader.”

Originally a right-handed hitter, Toocheck started experimenting with hitting from both sides as a sophomore. After her infamous right-handed strikeout with the bases loaded against Walsh Jesuit as a junior, she hit left-handed her entire senior season and throughout her career at Kent State.

Toocheck was just as good in the field, where her throws from deep in the hole often caused an audible gasp from those in attendance.

“She was the best I’ve ever seen or played with,” Gigliotti said. “She was always diving and she always knew where the play was at. I’m still afraid to play catch with her, and she knows that because I tell her all the time. She did and still does put everything she has into the game.”

Medina finished 19-9, won the PC title and advanced to the regional semifinals in Toocheck’s sophomore year, then went 25-4 overall and undefeated in the PC while reaching the regional championship her junior season. In Toocheck’s senior year, Medina went 20-8, finished second in the PC Frontier Division and advanced to the district final.

“Jess was always the leader of the team,” Bernard said. “She was someone you looked to for advice, for guidance. She had natural ability. She was a three-sport athlete, so it was no surprise to us that she was more gifted than the rest of us. We all knew that.”

DiTommaso still remembers a game against Wadsworth at Firestone Stadium. Scoreless in the seventh inning, the Grizzlies had a runner on second and a 3-2 count on the batter when a torrential downpour hit, forcing the teams to come back the next day.

The Bees wound up winning in 10 innings, but that’s not why the game has stuck with DiTommaso. Rather, it was what occurred prior to it being resumed.

“Jessica couldn’t stand still,” the coach said. “She did the whole run-to-the-fence-and-back thing, calisthenics, everything.

“Then she started acting like a baseball pitcher, throwing overhand from a windup. She’s throwing and I’m catching and the ball is hitting my glove and, I mean, it’s loud. Pretty soon, all the people are watching. I mean, she’s throwing that thing and my glove is popping. People were just in awe.”

They weren’t the only ones. DiTommaso thought so much of Toocheck as a player — and person — that he urged her to apply for the Medina job when he resigned as coach, largely because he knew she had all the qualities needed to be successful.

“Jess was competitive as a player,” DiTommaso said. “She couldn’t shake a loss. It would eat at her. It was always very important to her. On the other hand, that never defined her, either. She just wanted to compete. She never, ever was lazy. It never happened. There was never a single moment.”

Golden Flash

As good as Toocheck was at Medina, she was even better at Kent State, where she played for Karen Linder. She was a first-team All-MAC selection her final three seasons and, in addition to being MAC Player of the Year, was a second-team All-American and first-team Academic All-American as a senior.

“My college career was better than I could have ever imagined,” Toocheck said. “I had an opportunity to play four years for one of the top schools in the MAC, I got to travel with some of the best teammates ever and I got to play some of the highest competition. We had four good playing years, and the memories I took from them are incredible.”

The Golden Flashes recorded a school-record 46 victories in Toocheck’s senior season and tied school marks with 40 regular-season wins and 20 MAC victories. Kent State won MAC East titles in Toocheck’s final three seasons, giving her a 135-74 record over her four-year career.

Numbers and accomplishments, however, will never be what define Toocheck, especially to those who know her best.

“She is one of the few people I’ve ever played with that had fun every single day,” Brocklehurst said. “She wanted to get better every single day and leave it all on the field.

“Over long seasons, you get to the point where you get sick of softball, but you loved watching her because she always had fun. That made you have fun. That’s what sticks out the most. She’s the best I’ve ever played with.”

Coach

Not all great players make great coaches. Some don’t even make good ones.

Toocheck, however, might end up being a better coach than she was a player, if she’s not already.

“She was born to help kids,” Bernard said. “She knows how to break things down for kids so it doesn’t go over their heads. She also knows how to break it down individually, whether they need to be yelled at or built up or just talked to. The kids respect her. She gets them on a different level.”

Toocheck was just 23 when she took over the Medina program from DiTommaso. The Bees had had six straight losing seasons and promptly went 10-15 in her first year, but showed promising signs in the postseason.

The next year, Medina went 24-5 and reached the Division I state tournament for the first time in school history, leading to Toocheck being named Gazette Spring Coach of the Year.

Last season, the Bees went 23-8 and reached the regional championship, and this year they’re in line to win a Northeast Ohio Conference Valley Division title and make another prolonged tournament run.

“We did a ton of conditioning and a ton of drills in the preseason,” senior Madi Tata said. “She really pushed us, and that’s one of the main reasons we’ve been so successful. If we’re not mentally in it, she’ll call us together and say, ‘This is it. Get your heads in the game.’ That’s the only time she gets angry.”

A solid strategist and game manager, Toocheck’s biggest strength is her ability to relate to her players and instill her passion for the game in them.

The Bees do a ton of bonding exercises designed to increase chemistry, communication, trust and leadership. Most take place on Saturdays when they don’t have a game or during the team’s annual trip to Myrtle Beach, S.C.

One day, the players might be asked to write a note to each of their teammates — a joke, a phrase, an inspirational message — that stresses something positive that can later be read in private.

Another day, they might play several of Toocheck’s famous Minute-to-Win-It games, based off the television show of the same name. They’re “goofy games,” in Toocheck’s words — balance six dice on a tongue depressor in your mouth, or put Vaseline on the tip of your nose, apply cotton balls and try to walk across the room — but they work.

“I always ask the girls what they like and what they respond to best,” Toocheck said. “Every athlete is different and needs to be addressed differently. It’s my job to find out what way is the best way for each of them.”

Toocheck, who Gigliotti vividly recalls getting help from in trigonometry on bus rides to and from games, takes the same approach in the classroom. After four years as a special education teacher at Edwards Middle School in Brunswick, she is now in the same job at Medina High.

“It fits her so well,” Brocklehurst said. “She’s a great coach, but she’s an even better teacher. She has patience and slows things down. If one kid doesn’t grasp a drill or lesson, she changes it to something they understand. She adapts to the player and to the student.”

It’s a trait that, when forced to even consider she might have, the extremely modest Toocheck credits to her parents, teammates, coaches and lifetime involvement in sports.

“I absolutely could not imagine my life without sports,” she said. “From early childhood to high school to college to now, it’s truly made me the person I am today. The relationships I’ve made with teammates, coaches, players, parents, it has truly been incredible.

“Sports has taught me everything you can’t be taught in a book.”

Contact Rick Noland at (330) 721-4061 or rnoland@medina-gazette.com. Like him on Facebook and follow him @RickNoland on Twitter.