When Jessie DeNardo walked into Denmark High School for the first time, she wasn’t doing it out of necessity, but out of curiosity.
There were students that were being made to go to Forsyth County’s newest high school, but DeNardo was not one of them. Then a rising freshman, she’d spent her last four school years at Pinecrest Academy, but as a talented softball player, she didn’t know if she wanted to stay at a school that didn’t carry her sport. With just three days left before Denmark’s school year began, she had a big decision to make, and she had to make it quickly.
“There were times where I was like, ‘I don't think I'll have enough time to play (high school softball),’ but there were other times where I was like, ‘If I don't do it, I'm going to regret it.’”
As soon as saw the school and met head softball coach David Smart and athletic director Jamie Corr, though, all of that indecision melted away. Less than a week later, DeNardo began her high school career at Denmark.
“It was so intimidating, but honestly our school started so small, it wasn't that big of a jump,” she said.
Since joining the Danes, DeNardo has shown herself to be one of the county’s rising talents. In just her freshman year, she was a first-team all-county selection, hitting .452 with five home runs to lead the Danes during their inaugural season. With Denmark looking to be much-improved this year, her presence on the team could be a boon for the still-growing Danes.
DeNardo played softball during her entire time at Pinecrest from fifth through eighth grade, but also played for South Forsyth’s feeder team. But even if it gave her the opportunity to play softball for her school, she wasn’t ready to make the jump to South, which dwarfs Pinecrest in enrollment and size.
“I got thinking, I didn't want to go to South,” DeNardo said. “It was just too much. That would have been a huge jump for me, to go from Pinecrest to South, which has 4,000 students. So I just didn't want to.”
So at Pinecrest she stayed, but she still found a way to be active in her sport, playing on the 14U Lady Dukes travel team, based in Durham, North Carolina. It was a team full of talented players like her, coached by the husband of Duke softball head coach Marissa Young. That connection eventually earned her an opportunity as just an eighth grader, with the Blue Devils offering her a very early verbal commitment.
She gleefully accepted that opportunity after visiting the campus, but in July of this year, she decided to decommit, feeling that if she ever left the Lady Dukes, the opportunity would be pulled anyway. In the end, she wanted to be in control of her own destiny.
“I'm performing to just have fun,” DeNardo said. “I know college is there but it's not my straight focus. I feel more relaxed, like the weight is off. I'm still young as a sophomore but I'm still looking, and I'm trying to keep my options open because I just want to have more of a perspective and just see the college. I also want to be able to go to a school where the coaches see me as a person and not a player -- I just want to get that whole college experience plus the softball.”
There’s a lot of time left before she has to make that decision, though, and she’s already made her mark in her first two seasons playing high school softball. She hit Denmark’s first-ever home run last year, and in her second season, her defensive play at third and her ever-dangerous bat are helping the Danes progress past a tumultuous first year. There are differences from what she’s experienced in the past, but most of them are positive, and she’s not regretting her last-second decision to join Denmark less than two years ago.
“The way people supported each other and just the whole aspect was different,” DeNardo said. “It’s more team rather than individual. It's a lot more connection and I think it's a lot more fun. It's just less pressure and more relaxing, I guess you could say.”