Freshman phenom. Gatorade Player of the Year. No. 1 recruit in the country.
Any of these labels is aptly telling of the talent that UCLA freshman midfielder Jenna Richmond is endowed with. But among her teammates, Richmond is known in quite another manner.
At one of the team-bonding sessions during the preseason, the women’s soccer players took turns asking one another icebreaker inquiries.
“One of the questions was about what animal each person’s personality (resembled),” said freshman midfielder Crystal Shaffie, Richmond’s roommate. “And Jenna was a baby giraffe, because she’s actually one of the clumsiest people (on the team).”
What began as a light topic then shifted to hilarity.
“We were walking in the streets the other day, and there was a car in the middle of the driveway with the trunk open,” Shaffie said. “We all saw it, walked around it, thought Jenna saw it, too … but she walked straight into it and hit her head. It was the funniest thing ever.”
But make no mistake, the laugh-a-minute moments are nothing more than just that: laughing matters.
As much pressure and hoopla that may surround a player pegged as the nation’s top recruit, Richmond is strikingly composed, exuding a maturity fit for a senior All-American.
Case in point: After giving her commitment to coach Jillian Ellis to play for the Bruins, the freshman from Virginia made the cut for the Under-20 U.S. Women’s National Team, the very program that Ellis is also in charge of.
But once U-20 FIFA Women’s World Cup play began, Richmond saw very limited time during the tournament. Still, she accepted her role in stride, not once expressing any possible bitterness over playing time.
“I think a lot of players in that situation might have been led to believe, “˜Oh well, maybe that coach doesn’t have the faith in me,’” Ellis said. “So I said to her one day, “˜Jenna, these are two completely different animals right now, but trust me, you are going to be one of the best to have ever played the college game.’ I think that was very mature of her. Here’s a coach who she’s going to play college soccer for and who’s not giving her playing time.
“But she got it and knew that it was going to be a process for her.”
That very poise is precisely why Richmond is playing soccer in a city just less than 3,000 miles away from her hometown of Centreville, Va., a decision she made entirely on her own.
“Honestly, I was so excited to commit here, because I knew it was different, and I wanted something different,” Richmond said. “I wanted to spread my wings.”
As for her parents, it was a reality that was already looming on the horizon.
“You knew that the day was inevitable,” said Gary Richmond, Jenna’s father. “She was blessed with some tremendous opportunities, and when the UCLA opportunity came to fruition, it made the miles irrelevant. We were more thrilled and happy for her and her opportunity than anything.”
Then there was the injury in February of 2008. Partaking in the Future Stars Tournament with the U-17 team in New Zealand, the star midfielder made a hard tackle on an opposing player, which resulted in a torn ACL and meniscus in her right leg.
It was an injury so severe that it forced Richmond to sit out for seven months.
“Emotionally, it drained me because it was the last game, and I realized that something was up with my knee,” she said. “I didn’t want it to be the ACL, and I was praying that it wouldn’t be, so it was a bummer.”
But again, Richmond showed her self-assurance, not dwelling on the derailment but, instead, opting to look forward.
“She accepted what happened early on,” Gary said of his daughter. “She was doing something she loved, and then it was taken away instantaneously, but she came to the fact that it is what it is. She channeled all of her energy toward her rehabilitation, and she cleared every test with her doctors and was well ahead of the curve.”
Now, Jenna stands as tall as ever, ready to embrace the Bruin culture and spark the team to another winning season.
Already as a first-year starter, she has made her mark, leading UCLA to a 2-1 upset win over then-No. 3 Notre Dame on Sept. 10.
UCLA has been known to have some of the most gifted soccer players in the nation.
The likes of Traci Arkenberg, Danesha Adams and Lauren Cheney come through its program, and Ellis ““ now in her 12th season as coach ““ sees no reason why her freshman talent can’t end up joining the elite ranks when all is said and done.
“There are some players who are naturally gifted but then perhaps don’t have a work ethic, and then there are some who study the game but don’t have the ability,” Ellis said. “I think Jenna has got this tremendous balance where she has a passion for the game and is very gifted but also wants to get educated in soccer. You put all those together, and I think she’s got an amazing future ahead of her.”