Jaci Hull never planned to spend her freshman year watching softball from the dugout.
But the UNLV shortstop also didn't plan on breaking her hand during a game against California in February 2006. Her season-ending fracture was the start of an injury streak that would ravage the Rebels' lineup and drastically alter their season.
"It was hard because I had never broken a bone," said Hull, who was batting .400 in 10 games before getting hurt. "I went to a doctor thinking I was just going to get some pain medication. I was shocked when I was told I couldn't play anymore."
But in a way, her season wasn't over. The Scottsdale, Ariz., native spent the next three months studying from the bench, scrutinizing the mental aspects of the game. Now a redshirt freshman, Hull has picked up from where she left off last year.
"It was nice to have last year as a learning season because I only got to play two weeks," said Hull, who leads the Rebels this season with a .406 average. "I don't see myself as a freshman now. I've been playing so long, I feel I have the ability to succeed and lead this team."
Hull has the statistics to back up that statement, as she also leads UNLV with eight home runs, 15 doubles, 37 walks and a .729 slugging percentage. She is second with 26 RBIs.
"Jaci gained a whole lot of knowledge last year from the bench, sort of from a coach's side," Rebels coach Lonni Alameda said. "And now she can relate that on the field. She's progressing and getting better every week."
Hull said the unfortunate events of last year have caused her to take a new approach to each game.
"I look back at it and I realize that in one at-bat, one pitch, everything can end," she said. "I think about that every day."
Opposing pitchers have developed a way to prevent Hull from padding her batting statistics, often walking her to minimize damage. Though Hull went 3-for-5 with a home run, a double and three RBIs in a two-game series at Colorado State over the weekend, she also drew five walks in her 10 plate appearances.
Those numbers are becoming common, as Alameda said Hull has an intimidating demeanor at the plate.
"She's got a little pizzazz," the coach said. "That's partly why we recruited her."
As the team's new leadoff hitter, Hull has the responsibility of setting the offensive tone for each game.
"The leadoff spot isn't my home," said Hull, who played internationally as a member of Triple Crown Colorado in last July's Canada Cup. "I never really liked it, but I felt comfortable with it in my first at-bat and I was ready to take on that challenge."
But Hull doesn't mind the extra responsibility, particularly if her hard work helps produce a Mountain West Conference championship next month. The Rebels (30-17, 6-1 MWC) appear to have a shot at making the NCAA Tournament for the second time in three years. Though they struggled during a rigorous nonconference schedule, they have won four straight games and six of their last seven.
Brigham Young and San Diego State look like the teams to beat in the Mountain West. The Rebels are 2-0 against the Cougars, and they will host the Aztecs in a critical two-game weekend series. Action begins at 6 p.m. Saturday at Eller Media Stadium.