2022 PGF Nationals 16U Premier

Rising Star: Virginia Unity's Jayden Heavener Keeps Raising The Bar

Rising Star: Virginia Unity's Jayden Heavener Keeps Raising The Bar

After three seasons with the Thunderbolts, Heavener joined Virginia Unity last fall, coached by Josh Johnson and Jay Ross.

Jul 20, 2022 by Stephen Kerr
Rising Star: Virginia Unity's Jayden Heavener Keeps Raising The Bar

Since she began playing travel ball at the 8U level, Virginia Unity 16U pitcher/first baseman Jayden Heavener has seen more of the open road than most adults. The 5-7 15-year-old lefthander plays for Pace High School in Florida, travels around the country playing and practicing with her travel team, and goes to Alabama for pitching and hitting lessons once a week.

Jayden’s mother, Denise, estimates she and her husband Shane have logged about 20,000 miles by car this year alone, getting their daughter to her various softball activities. They’ve lost track of the mileage racked up by air. 

The constant traveling makes for a hectic lifestyle, but it’s not completely foreign territory for Denise and Shane. Jayden’s older sister Lauren played softball in high school and one year at Austin Peay. Her older brother Jacob played lacrosse at Tennessee Wesleyan.

“It’s much different now than it was then,” Denise explained. 

“Jayden travels all over the United States, whereas they were mostly within two or three hours.”

Still, no one’s complaining. Born in Nashville, Jayden and her family moved to South Florida eight years ago as a result of Denise’s job. As Jayden’s softball skills began to develop, the family decided to relocate to the Pensacola area to put her in the best position for practices and private instruction.

“It was a decision that was not hard to make because honestly, she was worth it and had the talent,” Denise said. “We owed it to her to provide that.”

For Jayden, the opportunity to travel and visit new places is one of the perks that come with playing the game.

“I love the game and would go anywhere for it,” she said. 

“I love traveling and playing in different states, going all the way to the West Coast, just getting in as much practice as I can.”

Jayden’s love of softball began when she was four. She started out as a catcher and began playing for Tennessee Mojo at 8U. But she saw limited playing time and wanted to try pitching. After talking with her parents, she took to the circle at age 10 and knew that was where she belonged. 

“I didn’t have the mental game then (as a catcher),” Jayden said. 

“It frustrated me but it also pushed me to be better. Me and my parents talked about being a catcher or pitcher. I really wanted to do both, but I had to choose. Being a lefty and (seeing) how strong I was pitching, we felt like it was a better idea.”

Jayden practices regularly with Shane, a former college track athlete. Shane chuckles when he recalls how many bruises he has received catching her. Instead of assuming a catcher’s crouch, he sits on a bucket.

“I’ve done it since day one, and she calls me her bucket man,” Shane said. 

“(The bruises) don’t feel any better. I learned to protect myself a little better behind catcher’s gear.”

Jayden played with the Birmingham Thunderbolts for three seasons. It took some time for her to develop the confidence and mental toughness required to be elite in the circle. But slowly, the success came. After struggling in the early part of the 2019 PGF Nationals, she tossed back-to-back complete game victories against Impact Gold to lead the Bolts to the championship.

“The people around me believed in me,” Jayden said of her time with the Thunderbolts. 

“The coaches and players pushed me to be better. I’ve always loved the competition of the game, and there’s always something to change and correct.”

One of Jayden’s greatest challenges came in 2020. After experiencing pain in her back, it was discovered she had suffered an L4 stress fracture and would have to miss several months. But she worked hard to come back.

“They don’t really know how it happened,” Jayden recalled of the injury. 

“I recovered a lot faster than I thought I would, even though it was a while before I could come back because I couldn’t work out. It was supposed to happen, and it made me grow stronger and learn to have more love for the game.”

Once she was cleared to resume workouts, Jayden spent hours in the gym and using CrossFit to gain strength.

“I’ve found CrossFit was good for my endurance as a pitcher and I’m not lifting too much weight,” Jayden explained. “I’ve found it really fun.”

Jayden proved her resilience as a freshman at Pace High School in 2021. After one of the team’s pitchers suffered an injury, Jayden stepped in. In 14 games, she posted an 11-3 record with a 1.57 ERA and 252 strikeouts in 114 innings. At the plate, she hit .303 and led Pace to the state Final Four. That success earned her Florida State 5A Pitcher of the Year honors.

Her sophomore season was even better: 16 wins, a 0.90 ERA and 300 strikeouts. She batted .391 with eight homers and made the 2022 MaxPreps Underclass All-American Team. She pitched a no-hitter with 17 strikeouts and smacked a two-run homer in an 11-0 win over Orange City University High to send the Patriots to the state semifinals where they lost to Melbourne High. 

“We’ve had the same girls those two years, and I felt like it was time to go a bit further because we’ve had those extra steps to work with each other,” Jayden said. “We just lost it (in the semifinals).”

Last fall, Jayden joined Virginia Unity 16U, coached by Josh Johnson and Jay Ross. She and her parents enjoyed the Thunderbolts and the relationships they had built, but felt it was time for a different challenge. She had made several previous guest appearances with the team and impressed Johnson with her composure in the circle.

“I felt like from a competitive standpoint of being able to put her in situations to be more successful… I could help her through the process of being recruited and chasing her dreams,” Johnson said.

Speaking of recruiting, coaches will be able to begin talking with Jayden this September as she begins her junior year. Denise gives a lot of credit to Johnson and Ross for helping Jayden prepare for that process.

“We are trying our best to give her advice without pushing her in a certain direction,” Denise explained. “Jay and Josh have been so amazing in that process. They are her biggest supporters and fans as far as talking to coaches for her and trying to find a perfect fit. We’ve just told her to follow her heart, choose a school that’s academically appropriate but what feels most like home.”

Once she gets to college, Jayden would like to study veterinary medicine. She loves animals and spending time with her two dogs, an English bulldog and chocolate lab. For now, she’s focused on the present and working toward getting better as a pitcher and a hitter.

Jayden wouldn’t mind being a two-way player in college should that opportunity present itself. It’s a tall order, to be sure, but one Johnson believes she can handle.

“The coaches I’ve talked to about it are all in favor of it for her,” Johnson said. “She’s got some juice in the bat. She’s not a singles hitter, so you don’t have to worry about her running bases. Typically when she gets on, it’s going to be a double or home run. She’s a Power Five starter from day one.”