Jen Banford, a softball success story

It was way back in August of 1999, when Jennifer Banford took a break from her packing for university for an interview with the Leader. Little did she know that she had hit the ball out of the ball park when she landed a partial softball scholarship to Valley City State University in North Dakota.

Jennifer, along with her dad Keith and mom Janice, were thrilled at the opportunity the scholarship provided for her education. What they didn’t realize was that 15 years later, Jennifer would be the head coach of the University of Minnesota NCAA II Duluth Bulldogs women’s softball team and the 2013 Northern Sun Intercollegiate Coach of the Year.

Back in 1999, Jennifer was your typical 18-year-old, bubbling over with excitement as she packed for the 26 hour drive to Valley City. She had just completed Grade 12 at Seaway District High School, and had three OAC credits. She had  also wrapped up a third ball season in the shortstop position with a Tier 1 team in Manotick coached by Chris Mullins.

 It was Mullins who had encouraged her to apply to some U.S. colleges and universities for a ball scholarship. 

Jennifer also put her resume online and that is how Valley City found her. With a student population of 1,200, Valley City was looking for a basketball and softball player. And they found both in Jennifer.

A talented, multi-sport athlete, Jennifer was just two inches over five feet. Hockey was her favourite sport, and she had played high school basketball along with competitive basketball in a league in Cornwall.

At Valley State, she was to play volleyball in the fall, followed by basketball and then softball in the spring.

“I tried everything,” says Jenn who was home in Iroquois in mid-June. “The reality of U.S. college is it’s unique to be able to do two sports, let alone three. I ended up concentrating on softball and was moved to catcher.”

For four years, Jennifer was a standout catcher for the Valley State Vikings. She graduated in 2003 with a B.S. degree, double majoring in Health and Physical Education. She later completed her Master of Science degree in Health, Nutrition and Exercise Science.

“In the U.S., they have really good support for student athletes,” says Jennifer. “It’s totally different than here, just the resources they have. And it doesn’t matter if it’s a small school. They really take care of their athletes.”

Jennifer still recalls that first trip to North Dakota. “There were a few tears when they [dad and mom] dropped me off. But I was excited. It felt good right away. The people were great, and it felt like home right away. I have no regrets. I made lifelong friends there.”

Asked when the possibility of a coaching began to take shape, Jennifer says, “When I was in my sophomore year, I began to realize the opportunities there were in coaching.”

Being that Valley State was a smaller college and with not a big coaching staff, Jennifer began to take a leadership role and that is how she first noted the opportunities in coaching.

“For most coaching in the U.S. schools, you have to get a related degree. So I began to gear my education towards that goal.”

After graduation from Valley City, Jennifer spent one year as assistant coach in Aberdeen, South Dakota, and one season as interim headcoach at Mayville State University before she received the head coach offer from the University of Minnesota Duluth.

At Mayville, she was coaching and teaching students her own age.

It was a dream offer that came from Duluth in 2005. “I was very excited to get to Duluth. They play Division II ball which was a step up for me, and they have  a very good Division 1 women’s hockey team.”

They are coached by the first ever coach of Team Canada [Shannon Miller]. “I knew, once I got there, it was where I wanted to be.” 

And now Jennifer says she has “the best of both worlds.” 

From January to May, she is the head coach for the Bulldogs women’s softball team, and from August to March, she is the Director of Operations and Video coach for the women’s hockey team.

During her eights years as the Bulldogs head softball coach, Jennifer’s teams have put up a 247-153 record. They have four NCAA II Central Regional l berths, and one NSIC regular season championship.

This past season, the Bulldogs posted 14 straight wins, their second longest victory streak ever and rolled up their second most victories ever with a 41-13 record. Both on the field and off the field, Jennifer’s Bulldogs have enjoyed some big successes with 21 NSIC/NCC All-Academic Team honorees.

Jennifer’s recent visit home to Iroquois was a brief stop before she headed off to British Columbia (June 24-30) to join Softball Canada as a guest coach for the selection process for Canada’s junior and senior women’s national teams.

She says she was absolutely delighted to get the invite by Softball Canada. “I’ve been trying to get my foot in the door in Canada with Softball Canada as an opportunity to give back to my country. I can’t wait. It’s going to be exciting, and I’m looking forward to it. I know a good handful of the girls trying out as a couple are in Minnesota and one I recruited myself.”

Jennifer was also excited to meet three-time world champion and Softball Canada Hall of Famer, Team Canada head coach Mark Smith who has 27 years of experience in developing and leading high performing teams.

The team selected will compete in the World Cup, July 7-13, in Irvine, California, and the Canadian Open, July 15-21, in Surrey, B.C.

In August, Team Canada will be in Haarlem, Netherlands for the XIV ISF Women’s World Championships.

As a guest coach, Banford is not on the Team Canada coaching staff. She was however thrilled to be a part of the selection process and to work with some really talented and experienced softball coaches and players.

Jennifer tries to visit home, two or three times a year and she says, “I am always willing when back in town to educate people on what is out there. I would love people to have the same experience I’ve had. I worry that the kids in this area, don’t know just how many opportunities there are available to them.”

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