Fourteen years ago Lindsay Jenco, a single mother working multiple jobs, took her only son, five-year-old Saige, to the local football field near their small home in State College, Pennsylvania and signed him up for the recently organized youth football program.
She could not have known at the time that the man behind the sign-up desk, Ray Ciervo, would fill the fatherless void in Saige’s life, nor could she have known that day was the beginning of an athletic career that has developed into Saige becoming one of the leading candidates for this year’s ACC baseball Rookie of the Year Award.
Jenco has used his speed, tenacity and will to become one of the ACC’s peskiest players. A redshirt freshman, Jenco ranks toward the top of the conference in hits (59), batting average (.337), on-base percentage (.468), walks (39) and stolen bases (20).
Ciervo, one of the football program’s founders, always loved the mentorship aspect of coaching. As a child he had coaches who impacted his life and he wished to do the same for others. This relationship though, the one he shared with Saige, was more than just coach and athlete.
“It was one of those connections between me and Saige that was from day one,” Ciervo said. “I could see it in his eyes that we were going to form a bond that was going to end up being a lifelong bond, and I ended up, without intention, becoming a fatherly figure to him.”
Lindsay quickly recognized the relationship between Saige and the man he still calls ‘pops’ out of habit and welcomed the assistance. When her son needed guidance from a male figure she would call on Ray.
“The whole entire Ciervo family was like a second home to me. He’s basically my father,” said Saige Jenco, who has never spoken to his genetic father. “He and my two uncles, they basically mentored me, helped my mom and I get through everything.”
Off the field, Ray was a male role model for the young boy who was raised by his mother, aunt and grandmother. On the field, Ray the head coach centered his offense around him.
Jenco, who now uses what seems like superhuman fleet-footedness to terrorize on the base paths, ran circles around opponents and led his youth football teams deep into the Pennsylvania state playoffs.
“When you saw the kid run, even at that young age, you knew,” Ciervo said. “You knew that you were looking at something special, and with the right work and the right dedication on his part that he would be where he is today and on his way to where he’s going to go if he doesn’t stop working.”
But back then, much like today, there were psychological aspects of the game that weighed on Jenco. Unable to have the short memory necessary that comes with playing sports, Jenco would harp on bad games, which for him growing up was rushing for six touchdowns but getting stopped short once.
That growth of mental toughness has been a focal point for Jenco in 2014 on the diamond. The 5-foot-10 lefty with a honey badger fauxhawk hasn’t had many poor performances in his debut season in Blacksburg.
When he does, it’s tough to let them go.
“Sometimes he’s too competitive, where he is living and dying by every at bat and every pitch or if he’s caught stealing,” Tech head coach Pat Mason said. “His motor is going, and it’s up and down and up and down. It’s a tough way to live, but it’s the way he’s lived his life.”
Ray and the kid he calls Boobie, after star running back Boobie Miles in the movie “Friday Night Lights,” speak multiple times a week on the phone and through text messaging during the regular season. The two regularly talk about ways to build up that sports amnesia.
From football to baseball
Before enrolling in State College High School, Jenco had played recreational baseball, but never took it as seriously as football. Eventually though, due to circumstances outside of his control, football was taken away from him.
By the time he reached high school, everyone in the sports-driven town of State College seemed to know Jenco’s name because of his athletic prowess. But, according to Ciervo, that wasn’t enough to get him on the field.
“You had Saige on the football field that ran a 4.32 or a 4.34 40 (yard dash), and hands for days, just knew the game left and right, but they wouldn’t play him because his mother didn’t donate to the booster club,” Ciervo said.
So Jenco switched to baseball. He lettered his last three years of high school and earned his break when he played against the son of Mark Helsel, the coach of the Mid-Atlantic Canes, a competitive travel baseball organization.
Jenco impressed, earning a spot on Helsel’s team and an opportunity to play in front of scouts and college coaches.
After his junior year, Jenco played in a tournament at Tech in front of Mason and former head coach Pete Hughes.
“We didn’t see a large enough sample size to really know what we were getting other than a kid who was stupidly quick and could the catch ball if it was hit to him,” Mason said.
Jenco, with the important ability of understanding and appreciating the situation he’s in, knows he wasn’t too far away from being on a completely different course.
“It’s really unreal that I’m here right now,” Jenco said. “I wasn’t even planning on going to college, to be honest. If I wouldn’t have gotten these offers, I’d probably be sitting at home right now working a job.”
Jenco, who will turn 20 in August, is determined to make proud those who have worked to give him the opportunity to succeed: his mom, his family and the Ciervos.
“He definitely wants to make them proud,” Mason said. “It seems as if good days, bad days, that gets him out of bed the next day. Good at bats, bad at bats, bad games, the next morning he wakes up because he’s not going to let down the people that have provided this for him.”
Last season, unable to practice as he rehabbed a torn labrum, Jenco watched and learned under the most successful team in Tech history. Andrew Rash, Tyler Horan, and Chad Pinder, veteran leaders on the team, were drawn to Jenco for his affable personality, an opportunity the then-18 year old used as a learning experience.
Now though, as he experiences personal success during a disappointing team campaign, he knows it will soon be his turn to lead the team. Still being relatively new to the game and learning its nuances at every turn, he’s ready for the leadership role.
“I have to keep it even keel throughout the whole game because I’m starting to play pretty well and kids are starting to look up to me,” Jenco said. “I realize that I’m going to be here for a couple more years and it’s just going to help out if I can be a leader and get in the footsteps of guys like Rash and other people that have led here before.”
The road to Blacksburg has not been an easy one for Jenco, but with stretched out legs and support behind him, he’s ready to run through whatever challenges await.
Jenco’s 2014 stats…