Pressure? What pressure?
So what if Jenn Melker is stepping into her first head coaching job by taking over the defending NJSIAA Tournament of Champions softball champ; which has won two Group III state championships in the past three years while reaching the state finals all three years.
That’s not pressure, is it?
“Oh my God yes,” laughed Melker, who replaces Jean Ruppert at Steinert. “There’s a huge target on my back.”
Fear not, Spartan fans. Melker would have it no other way.
“It’s not a scared kind of pressure,” she said. “And I don’t want my team to feel that kind of pressure. Girls graduated, and that was that team. I want this group to play their game. That’s really what we’re focusing on this season; is to not dwell on what we have done but to move forward and become the team that we are.”
Melker is no stranger to the Spartans success, having played there and serving as an assistant coach the past five years. She is the third Steinert graduate to take over the program, along with Bob Hutchinson and Ruppert. Jean Philpet started the program in 1975.
Now it is Melker’s turn, as she replaces a woman so distinguished in school history that she was inducted into the Steinert Athletic Hall of Fame’s first class.
“Oh my God, she’s an idol; an absolute idol,” Melker said.
An idol who groomed her protégé for this moment.
“I do feel like I’m ready,” Melker said. “It’s not that I’m not ready, it’s just hard to let go of (Ruppert). She did so much for the program, so much for the sport. She made it so easy for me to slide in because of how much she taught me. But yes, I am definitely ready. “
Not surprisingly, Melker’s predecessor feels the same way.
“I am very excited that Jenn was chosen as the person to take the program to the next levels,” Ruppert said. “Jenn is a wonderful person—enthusiastic, energetic and passionate about the game. She has tremendous family support which is so very critical in coaching, and she is a student of the game.”
A student with one of the best teachers around in her father, Mike Melker. A member of the Mercer County Softball Hall of Fame, Mike was an area legend when softball was in its heyday in the county and two pages of results could be found each morning in the paper. He put a glove on his daughter’s hand at an early age and a love affair began.
“I went to all his games,” Melker said. “I was his bat girl; he was my coach for everything. He set the foundation for me.”
Melker played her entire youth softball career with Hamilton Little Lads, where Mike served as president. She wanted to play travel softball but, because she also played soccer and basketball, Mike advised against it.
“He said, ‘If you want to do travel, you can’t be doing everything else,’” Melker said. “But I liked doing it all.”
She played varsity basketball and softball at Steinert, but did not play for Ruppert, who was between Steinert stints while coaching at The College of New Jersey. Melker played softball at Montclair State but quit after two years to focus on academics.
The sport was still in her blood, however, and she started the MSU club softball program and served as a player and coach.
“Right then and there, I realized I enjoyed teaching it and trying to inspire them to do it more than I enjoyed actually playing,” Melker said.
Upon graduation she gained a temporary full-time job at Steinert, filling in for teachers taking extended absences. She became an assistant swim coach that year in order to get coaching experience. It’s a position she still holds.
“I love coaching swimming,” Melker said. “I knew all the strokes; it wasn’t like I didn’t know what I was talking about. I went to school for phys-ed and health and had to learn all the strokes. It’s not like I was coming in and didn’t know how to doggie paddle. I wasn’t making it up.”
But softball is her sport. She sat by quietly that first year, not wishing to impose on Ruppert.
“I wanted to jump on the fact I was there and wanted to start coaching and I was gonna ask her all these questions,” Melker said. “But I knew it was her program, and I didn’t want to step on any toes or do anything like that. So I waited patiently my first year.”
As luck would have it, she and Ruppert were sitting in the phys-ed office during their free period. The head coach turned and asked Melker if she would be interested in coaching softball.
“She gave me a quick, little interview and I was helping ever since, it was that simple,” Melker said. “She knew I was interested, she knew I played. You know Ruppert. Even if she wasn’t my coach in high school, she knew I played.”
Thus began a five-year internship for Melker, who gained a permanent full-time job at Crockett Middle School in 2013 and was transferred to Steinert at the start of this school year.
“She took in as much information as she could,” Ruppert said. “She asked questions that showed she was analyzing and thinking about the game, drills, scrimmages, etc. She offered suggestions and ideas that would bring more consistency and strength to the team.”
After one year of coaching her main sport, Melker’s future was mapped out.
“I absolutely, 100 percent loved it; I knew it was something I was gonna do forever,” she said. “I knew I wanted to work my way up the ladder as much as I could and retain as much as I could from her. Just be like a sponge around her, so when the opportunity came where I could jump in I could take advantage of it.”
The opportunity has arrived, and Melker was loving every minute of it through the first few weeks of preseason practice. After years of mainly working on outfield defense and bunting, she is now overseeing the whole operation.
Kim Murl remains as pitching coach, Sam Dice handles the JV and Michelle Walsh has the freshman team. Mike Melker and Mike Ruppert (Jean’s son) serve as paraprofessionals, meaning they will help out whenever possible.
“Right now it’s trying new ideas, trying different things,” Melker said. “It’s not that Rupe didn’t let us make calls. We helped out here and there and did what we had to do. But getting the final decision, it’s nice trying different things. It’s been exciting.”
Asked if she had any new philosophies, Melker said, “It’s a learning process. That stuff will come as I go along. I’ve been with her for so long, our philosophy as a coaching staff kind of goes together, you play off each other, give opinions and everything comes together. Am I gonna change things? Possibly. But honestly, as of right now, it’s going well.”
And while Melker inherits a team that lost six starters, she returns one of the state’s top pitchers in Kaylee Whittaker, along with junior catcher Alex Haley and senior second baseman Nicole Cerasi.
“Other than that our starters are gone,” Melker said. “But some of those girls that weren’t starters stepped up to do some big things for us. They came off the bench and did what they had to do and they’re earning their spots.”
Much like Melker has earned her spot.
“She has the tools to be an outstanding coach and an awesome group of assistant coaches to help her get there,” Ruppert said. “As an alumnus the pride in the program is already there and I am excited for her to add to the softball home all of us have had the opportunity to contribute to. I wish her the very best and know that the program is in great hands.”