When Jessica Mouse was a baby, her father used to toss small socks at her, gauging the reaction time. When Mouse was past the toddler stage, she shagged balls in the outfield before the father's slow-pitch tournaments. And when she actually got to play for a real softball team?
"I just loved it,'' Mouse said. "I was a tomboy. I wanted to be the catcher. Everybody else was scared of the ball. I threw the gear on. I loved to dive and slide. I didn't mind getting dirty. Oh, I was grounded plenty of times for ruining my clothes.
"But the whole thing seemed natural to me. It's what I was meant to do.''
The final chapter makes sense, too.
Mouse, a senior third baseman, was meant to finish her college career at the University of South Florida, bringing her leadership skills and clutch defensive instincts to the rampaging Bulls, who have qualified for the program's first Women's College World Series. USF (50-12) faces the No. 4-ranked Oklahoma Sooners (50-8) in Thursday's opener at Oklahoma City.
"Our team was like a jigsaw puzzle and Jess Mouse was the missing piece,'' USF coach Ken Eriksen said. "You watch her and think, 'That's how this game is supposed to be played.' She has brought this whole team together, not just in softball, but in organizational theory, in life, everything. I give thanks every day that she's here.''
Mouse, the 2007 Tampa Tribune Prep Softball Player of the Year at Chamberlain High, already had committed to LSU when she moved from New Jersey to Tampa in her junior year. She played on three NCAA tournament teams with the Tigers and was part of 123 victories.
But then she fractured her foot, forcing her to redshirt the 2011 season. Meanwhile, she graduated with a bachelor's degree in Sports Administration. Since LSU didn't offer her desired Master's program – Entrepreneurship – Mouse utilized an NCAA rule that allows transfers with no penalty for graduate students.
Mouse came home to USF. Her parents could watch her final season. The Bulls plugged her into the lineup. And it has made for a magnificent finish.
"I actually couldn't imagine a better way to end my career,'' Mouse said.
Imagine this: LSU (and Mouse's former teammates) also made the WCWS field. In fact, USF and LSU could meet in the second round.
"If that happens, it would be ironic and maybe kind of funny, but I'm glad all of us got there,'' said Mouse (.272 average), who bats second in the lineup between two former Chamberlain High teammates, right fielder Gina Kafalas and first baseman Stephanie Medina. "Make no mistake, we'll all be out to win. That's why you play. That's how you play.''
That's how Mouse always has played.
"To me, Jess can do no wrong,'' USF sophomore shortstop Kourtney Salvarola said. "We respect her so much. She's almost like a parent, so mature, so wise. I've never played next to anyone like that or seen another player like her.
"She's always in the right place at the right time. She's always prepared. She never has a bad day. She's honestly the person I would like to eventually become. I think she's like a softball goddess.''
Eriksen said Mouse continually ignites USF's defense. He calls it, "Feeding the Mouse.'' The best example came in a 1-0 NCAA Regional victory against Central Florida in Gainesville.
Mouse leaped high to snag a bases-loaded, sixth-inning line drive from UCF's Hayley Barrow. The highlight wound up on ESPN's SportsCenter's top 10 plays.
"I was already running toward the outfield for the cutoff,'' Salvarola said. "I still don't know how she did that. It was almost as if somebody lifted her higher in the air.''
"It just so happened to go into my glove,'' Mouse said. "Sometimes, a little effort can take you a long way. It's just something I did.''
USF now fits naturally into the softball elite. Mouse said she's just part of the puzzle. But when the final piece is added, it makes all the difference.