Before playing at West Orange High and the University of North Alabama, Jennifer Schwenneker was a youth playing West Orange Girls Club. Now, she is the facility's rec softball director, intent on growing the league.
OCOEE As an emergency room nurse at Orlando Regional Medical Center, Jennifer Schwenneker constantly stays on the move during her 12-hour shifts.
Afterward, the Winter Garden resident is tired like anyone else would be, except that on some days after her shift ends, there isn’t time to be tired.
Not only is she a mother of two children, but as the new recreation director at the West Orange Girls Club in Ocoee, there’s plenty of work to be done — much to the amazement of her husband, Jeff Schwenneker.
“I tell her all the time that it amazes me how she’ll be dog-tired after a shift … and as soon as she walks through the front gate (at WOGC), she gets her second wind,” Jeff said. “She gets her energy again.”
Jeff understands his wife’s passion for the game — sometimes joking that she loves softball more than him — and, in particular, for the West Orange Girls Club.
It is, after all, where he chose to propose to her on Dec. 26, 2006, while Jennifer was home for the holiday while playing softball for the University of North Alabama.
She said yes, and not too long after that their first child, Jordan, arrived.
Jennifer’s playing career came to a close soon after, but she could never stay far from the game. A degree in exercise science meant working in the health and fitness industry for several years before eventually becoming a nurse, and all the while she continued to coach and volunteer where she could.
Then, a little more than a year ago, an opportunity came about at the WOGC.
Given that the Club is where Jennifer had started playing softball way back in 1992 as a first-grader — long before she took the field as a West Orange Warrior in high school or a North Alabama Lion in college — the opportunity to come back was to good to pass up.
“Everyone who knows me knows how passionate I am about softball,” Jennifer said. “Softball was my first love and I just want to do something good for these girls.”
Jennifer began as a coach but soon enough emerged as a natural candidate to replace Melanie Finley as the recreation director. Finley, who has been involved in the program since 2002, wanted to step back her time commitment as rec director to focus more on her coaching duties.
So, one of the program’s own has come back to lead it, and the challenge now is to help it grow back to the levels of participation it once enjoyed when it was the main act for youth softball on this side of Orlando — back before travel and club softball became all the rage.
“It was the place for all the kids in this community to come play softball,” Finley said, reflecting on the Club’s better days.
And, even with the growth of other options, spurred largely by the popularity of travel ball, the WOGC still has an important niche within the community, she said.
“The West Orange Girls Club is known for not saying ‘no’ — it doesn’t matter what your skill level is,” Finley explained. “There are so many kids that would be left out if it wasn’t for this program.”
Indeed, though the WOGC does offer travel teams through its Lady Hawks programs, its main function is to offer rec softball for any and all comers — no matter their skill level. It also meets a niche as an affordable option in a youth sports environment where prices are skyrocketing.
“This facility was founded on rec ball — that’s what it was built for. We were built to take girls, foster them, coach them, build up their self-esteem, teach them the game and provide a community atmosphere to keep them safe and out of trouble,” Jennifer said.
Back in the day, Lady Hawk tournament teams were a breeding ground for the players who would eventually suit up for varsity powerhouses like West Orange. That has changed, but Jennifer is optimistic the program can grow its numbers once again. Already, Jordan — who is 8 — and her brother Jay, 6, are regular sights at the WOGC.
Jordan, who along with more than 160 others girls will begin the spring season March 4, has quickly taken to the family sport. Though the Schwennekers were careful not to push their daughter to play softball, it turned out that wasn’t an issue.
“I remember the way Jenny played when she was in high school, and Jordan plays the same way — she’ll go crashing through a wall,” Jeff said.
Many days for the family are spent at the ballpark on Ocoee Apopka Road, and Jennifer and Jeff are optimistic that with the ongoing population growth in West Orange, the league can experience a resurgence.
“This place, specifically, is so special because it’s where I got started,” Jennifer said.
And for old timers who can remember when the parking lot would be packed with some of the best youth softball players around, it will be quite a sight to see once again.
“To me, it’s a staple,” Finley said. “It should never go away because it’s a very unique place.”
Contact Steven Ryzewski at [email protected].