Iyanla de Jesus, Jackson’s ace pitcher and star slugger, just finished a spring season she’ll remember forever.
She is a back-to-back state champion. And more importantly, from a legal standpoint, she is finally a de Jesus.
Iyanla’s father, Francisco de Jesus, was cooking at their home in Mill Creek during her 18th birthday party on March 3 when his daughter presented him with a box. Questioning why he was receiving a present on his daughter’s birthday, Francisco ripped open the first box just to find a smaller box inside. Same for the second box, as well as the third box.
In the fourth, he unveiled an envelope, which included adoption papers. The confusion did not subside.
“I was like, is there a warrant in here?” Francisco recounts.
Iyanla snatched the documents from him to reveal that they were adoption papers and asked Francisco if he would adopt her, which elicited tears from Francisco.
Francisco has been in Iyanla’s life ever since she was a young girl, but she was required to wait until she turned 18-years-old to be legally adopted and change her last name from Pennington to de Jesus, which she did for this softball season. The plan was two years in the making, as Iyanla deliberately thought and planned out how to make the moment special and memorable.
“I didn’t know about the name change until I heard her talking to her friends. That really solidified it for me. I still get choked up thinking about it,” Francisco said.
Her surname was different this season, but the results were just as dominant. The girl that’s interchangeably referred to as “Ice” is The Herald’s 2019 Softball Player of the Year for the second consecutive season.
After setting the bar incredibly high with a 0.35 earned-run average and 282 strikeouts over 139 1/3 innings last season, “Ice” posted a 1.03 ERA with 302 strikeouts over 141 1/3 innings for Jackson this season.
As commanding as she was in the circle, she was just as superior at the plate, posting a .582 batting average and a 2.025 OPS with 11 homers and 41 RBI.
“I’ve been doing this for almost 20 years, and she is the best player I’ve ever seen. Hands down,” Jackson head coach Kyle Peacocke said. “I’m talking about pitching and hitting. She’s so intelligent, it’s crazy. And she shares that knowledge with her teammates.”
As committed as Iyanla is on the softball field, her interests lied primarily on the hardwood growing up — at least that’s what Iyanla’s parents, who both were basketball players growing up, thought. But a childhood friend coerced her to the diamond and she has been hooked ever since.
“I saw that bat on her shoulder and I knew it was over,” Francisco said.
When she first started to play softball, two nicknames stuck with Iyanla growing up: “Ice” was bestowed to her by her little league coach, Jeff Hampson — whose daughter, Jillian Hampson, plays third base for the Timberwolves — after Iyanla declared amidst a sweltering tournament she needed some ice to cool down. Additionally, “Iyanla” was consistently being butchered by public address announcers as she entered the batter’s box and a simpler name solved that problem.
Her other nickname, “Wild Thing,” due to Iyanla’s propensity for being wild on the mound when she was young, is one she’s shed over the years. Iyanla walked 3.07 batters per seven innings while striking out 15.46 per seven innings this season.
She diligently worked on her craft over the years, according to her parents. Francisco fondly remembers setting up a net and coaching her during her formative years. Near bedtime, it wouldn’t be unusual to stumble on Iyanla watching softball YouTube tutorials on her laptop.
“There’s definitely some natural talent, but she works her tail off to be the best she can be,” Peacocke said.
That work ethic has paid off in a significant way. Iyanla is signed to play collegiate softball at Coastal Carolina University, a Division-I program in Conway, South Carolina, just a hop, skip and a jump away from resort city Myrtle Beach.
The Chanticleers discovered “Ice” very early in the process. Iyanla was playing on the Washington Ladyhawks select team with Tatyana Forbes, who was recruited to Coastal Carolina but has since transferred to Florida International, and the Chanticleers started recruiting her, too.
“I went there for an unofficial (visit) and I just loved the campus,” de Jesus said. “I didn’t want to go anywhere where I was cold. Compared to Washington where it’s always cold, so I picked there and the campus wasn’t too big and the teacher-to-student ratio is like 1-to-30, so it was everything I needed to excel in school.”
She received an ultra-sweet sendoff for her high school career: The Timberwolves strung together four wins in a single day, after the Class 4A tournament was condensed due to inclement weather, to capture the program’s second consecutive state championship. She pitched 25 2/3 of 28 innings for Jackson in a gutty performance in the circle.
As talented as “Ice” is on the field, she carries a humble disposition that teammates gravitate to, according to Peacocke.
“These girls respect her and know how talented she is,” Peacocke said. “She doesn’t make anyone feel like they’re beneath her. She’s always cheering for her teammates.”
Those same teammates were the ones at her house on March 3 for her 18th birthday party, flocking around Iyanla and Francisco with their smartphones videotaping as they shared their tender moment.
Even during a landmark life event, such as an 18th birthday, Iyanla has a knack for diverting the spotlight to others.
She reminded everyone of that on her birthday.
“You can’t pick your family, you’re usually stuck with who you have,” Francisco said. “Out of anybody, she picked me.
“On a personal level for me, she’s taught me how to be a father. That’s the greatest gift ever.”