One of the most decorated athletes in recent Jo Byrns history didn’t get to finish her high school career on her own terms, but her playing days are far from over.
Jaya Herring, who played basketball and softball for the Lady Red Devils, is heading to Middle Tennessee State University this fall to join the Blue Raiders softball team.
Extra Inning Softball ranked Herring as the 54th-best outfielder in the country and she was named to the All-District 9-A softball team twice. She earned All-Robertson County second team honors after batting .425 as a junior in 2019.
Herring was also a standout on the basketball court, helping Jo Byrns to back-to-back Class A sectional appearances in 2018-19 and 2019-20. She averaged seven points and six rebounds per game and landed on the All-Robertson County team as a senior.
The 5-foot-4 outfielder has been playing for Tennessee Elite this summer ahead of her move to Murfreesboro. The Connection caught up with Herring to reflect on her high school career and look ahead to the future:
Vannozzi: How is summer softball going? Is it a relief to be playing again after the long layoff?
Herring: We’ve had a few travel softball tournaments, but it’s been a lot less than usual and there’s a lot of restrictions. We’ve really only played in two big tournaments – we just got back from Oklahoma City and we went for a week in Florida.
It was a great feeling to play again. We were really nervous that we weren’t going to get to have a season at all, but it was good to be able to have closure with travel ball this summer.
How difficult was it to lose your senior season to the pandemic? What have you learned from that experience?
It was crazy. It was something that no one would have ever thought of. But it makes you appreciate every game and play every game like it’s your last. I really never saw that coming, and it was hard at first to not get to finish with the people I’ve played with basically my whole life. I learned from that, and now I know to play every game like it’s my last, because you never know what might come up.
You played your final game in Gulf Shores and had a senior ceremony with Greenbrier in March. Was that an emotional day for you, knowing that your high school career was probably over?
It was a very emotional time. We were still holding on and hoping that we were going to play again, but I really loved the senior night we got to have (in Gulf Shores), especially sharing it with Greenbrier. My best friend (Kimberly Cox) goes there and we got to celebrate together. It was different, but I enjoyed getting to have some type of closure.
What are some of your best memories from playing basketball and softball at Jo Byrns?
Basketball was one of my favorites. We made it really far in the tournaments my junior and senior years. The coaching staff was so much fun. And the softball team making it to the first round of the region tournament (in 2019). Those were probably my favorite times at Jo Byrns.
The basketball team made a remarkable turnaround from where it was a few years ago, especially with the two Class A sectional trips the last two seasons. What was the key to that?
I think we needed a lot of growing. Our team was always really young, but by the time we were juniors and seniors, we were ready for that. Coach Jessica (Holt) instilled in us that we could play against anybody. We always thought we were just small Jo Byrns and couldn’t do that. We grew a lot over the last two years in making those (sectional) runs.
I think they’re on a great track. We still have a lot of starters (coming back), and they’re working really hard. I hope they can make it farther than we did and that (the program) continues to grow.
You committed to MTSU at the end of your sophomore year in 2018. What made you want to jump on board so quickly?
When I first went to MTSU, I loved it and I loved the coaching staff. They made me realize without a doubt that they wanted me there. I had played with a few of the girls who are on the team already – they played with me on Tennessee Elite. That was big for me to be able to play with some of the girls that I had played with before. It’s not too far away from home. And the year I committed they won the (Conference USA championship). That was also a big thing for me. I want to continue to grow their program.
What have your conversations with the MTSU coaches been like since then? Do you think you’ll have a chance to see the field as a freshman?
I do. I’ve been working really hard to try to see the field my freshman year. We do have two seniors coming back (because of the canceled 2020 season), so it will be a little bit more competition.
We have the highest-ranked recruiting class that MTSU has ever had. I’m hoping that our class will make a huge difference in their lineup this year and that we’ll all get to see some game time.
How would you describe your strengths as a softball player?
Speed is definitely my biggest factor. I like to bunt a lot and steal a lot of bases – that’s probably what got MTSU’s attention in the first place. That’s what I’m there for – pinch running, hitting, playing outfield – basically speed.
It puts pressure on the other team. They know they have to throw the ball quick and react quick. There’s a lot you have to think about, and it puts stress on the other team.
What do you think you need to improve on to be ready for the college game?
I think the game is going to be a lot quicker than what I’m used to, there’s going to be (better) pitching – things like that. I’ve been working with the girls on my travel team that are going to MTSU. I think hitting is going to be the main key for me getting to play my freshman year.
With the coronavirus still spreading, do you know if you’re going to be able to live on campus?
We are going to be able in live in the dorms. You can’t have roommates, it’s just one person per room. But I’m actually living in an apartment with three other roommates because we’re all able to have our own rooms. It’s going to be a big change and there’s not going to be as many people walking around campus. I think I’ll have a lot different freshman year than what I was imagining.
You plan to major in exercise science. What’s your dream job?
I want to be a physician assistant and specialize in sports medicine and orthopedics. I just broke my hand a couple months ago and I went to the sports medicine doctors a lot. They really made an impact on me, and I want to be able to do that for other athletes.