Athletic scholarships for Jersey City athletes—especially young women—are few and far between.
Contributing factors include athletic ability, academic achievement in high school, and getting recognized by major colleges. Jersey City has often fallen short on the first two counts, which leads to a shortfall on the third.
But in the past year, three athletes from Jersey City have signed National Letters of Intent with major NCAA Division I colleges, shattering the myth that Jersey City girls don’t get a chance to play Division I sports.
Jaylene Sierra, a recent Ferris High School grad, is off to Coppin State in Baltimore to play softball.
Jillian Ward, a Hudson Catholic grad, is headed to Fairleigh Dickinson University in Teaneck also to play softball.
And basketball star Breyanna Frazier of Marist will attend the University of Central Florida when her playing days at Marist are done in 2019.
It’s rare to have one Jersey City girl receive a Division I scholarship. Having three in the same calendar year is almost as exceptional as Halley’s Comet.
Hurler and Hitter
Sierra is the first girl from Ferris ever to earn a softball scholarship and the first former Bulldog to receive a Division I scholarship in almost 20 years, when a handful of basketball players moved on to big-time schools.
Over her career, Sierra, a pitcher by trade, helped the Bulldogs win 53 games, including a berth in the Hudson County Tournament championship game for the very first time. She had 579 career strikeouts and posted a 2.77 career earned run average.
As a hitter, Sierra had a career batting average of .500 with 138 hits, 126 runs scored, 66 RBI, and 28 hits for extra bases.
A four-time honoree on the Hudson Reporter All-Area team, Sierra was twice named the Reporter’s Pitcher of the Year.
As a senior, Sierra batted an astounding .700 with 45 runs scored, 33 RBI, and 15 extra-base hits. She pitched to a 20-3 record with a 1.39 ERA and 207 strikeouts. All told, it’s a career that likely will never be duplicated in Ferris softball annals.
“I just wanted to play softball in college,” Sierra said. “Going Division I is great, but it wasn’t really a goal.”
Sierra got her start playing Little League baseball with her father, Ben, as her coach. But she soon recognized that baseball didn’t offer a future.
“I thought softball was just the same as baseball,” Sierra said. “It was just that the ball was bigger. When I got a little older, I began pitching softball and got good at it. I worked very hard every day to get where I am now”
Sierra works out daily with her mother, Jacqueline.
“We do a lot with weights, doing bench presses,” Sierra said. “I know college is going to be a lot more of what I do with my Mom.”
Eyes on the Prize
Ward got a taste of what it was like to become a Division I scholarship athlete when her older brother T.J. was recruited out of St. Peter’s Prep to first go to Temple University and finally the University of Hartford before heading on to professional baseball.
“I wouldn’t admit it, but I wanted to be like him,” Ward said. “I looked up to him 100 percent.”
Ward, who also played volleyball at Hudson Catholic, realized her future was in softball. But getting a scholarship was a big obstacle.
“I always wanted to get recruited to play softball,” Ward said. “It was a goal of mine since I was about 10 years old. I wanted to be the first girl from Hudson Catholic to get a scholarship.”
Ward saw the window of opportunity closing when there weren’t a lot of offers coming her way.
“There were times that I was a little worried,” Ward said. “But I wasn’t going to let my dream die. I really had to get that D-I scholarship. I wasn’t going to settle for anything less.”
Ward also had to overcome the obstacle of injuring her right shoulder during her junior year. “I knew I might not pitch again,” Ward said. “Sometimes it gets sore, but I just ignore that. I’m 100 percent healthy. I worked hard to make myself a better position player.”
Though Ward pitched as a senior, she was recruited as a second baseman at FDU.
As a senior, Ward batted .544 with five home runs and 32 RBI. Of her 36 hits, 19 went for extra bases. She also scored 39 runs.
For her career, Ward recorded 94 career hits and would have eclipsed the 100-hit plateau if not for the injury. She also had a stellar 22-6 pitching record over her career and helped to lead Hudson Catholic to the school’s first-ever Hudson County Tournament championship in 2017.
She also earned Hudson Reporter All-Area honors four times during her brilliant career.
Ward, who likes the idea of going to college close to home, will major in education at FDU with the hope of becoming a teacher and a coach. “Everything about this fits. I can’t wait to get it started. I couldn’t ask for anything better.”
Frazier got recognized playing summer AAU basketball for the Books & Basketball Academy, an organization spearheaded by former Louisville All-American Pervis Ellison, who was the No. 1 draft pick overall in 1989 by the Sacramento Kings.
While playing for the Books & Basketball Academy, Frazier caught the eye of Central Florida coaches.
“I always kept the faith,” Frazier said. “I’m also very religious, so I prayed to God for the chance. I knew how much I wanted it. Getting recruited was a very humbling experience. I set goals for myself, and my goal was always to go D-I.”
Frazier is a three-time Hudson Reporter All-Area First Team honoree. She has already scored 1,205 career points, grabbed 458 career rebounds, registered 204 assists and collected 144 steals.
As a junior, Frazier averaged almost 18 points per game and reached double figures in every game the Lady Knights played last season. She also averaged 6.4 rebounds, 2.7 assists, and 2.3 steals per game, leading the Knights to a spot in the Hudson County Tournament semifinals.
The recruiting process can be brutal.
“It can be overwhelming with all the phone calls and speaking to other coaches every day,” Frazier said. “I didn’t want to worry about all that. I just wanted to worry about getting better. I have to keep working.”
After Central Florida began the recruiting process, and she visited the campus in Orlando, it was a no-brainer.
“I knew I wanted to go there,” said Frazier, who was also considering offers from schools like Kentucky and Nebraska. “It was a beautiful campus, like nothing I’ve ever seen. The coaches made me feel at home. Before I even got there, the coaches said to me that this would be the best decision I ever made in my life, and they were right. I got there, and I didn’t want to go home.”
The UCF coaching staff was relentless.
“They were at every single one of my summer games,” Frazier said. “I just kept praying to God, and everything worked out. It’s really been a blessing.”
Frazier has a message for other young girls from Jersey City.
“I feel like anyone can do it from Jersey City,” Frazier said. “If you put your mind to it and work hard. I know not a lot of people get the chance, but I want to be the one that others look up to. I want to be inspiring. I feel very proud. Words can’t explain how grateful I am.”
Frazier also thanked her uncle, head coach Reggie Quinn.
“Reggie is the one who stayed on me,” Frazier said. “Also my AAU coaches helped me.”
Friends Face Off
Ward and Sierra, who were former teammates on a summer travel team, are scheduled to face each other during the 2019 season, when Coppin State visits FDU in April.
“We play Jay in Teaneck,” Ward said. “That’s going to be pretty cool. I think it’s great for Jersey City softball that both of us are playing D-I. No one looks at Jersey City for softball.”
“It’s almost surreal that this has happened to me,” Sierra said. “It felt funny moving out of my house and on to college. But I’m always ready for a challenge. I think I know what it takes, and I’m going to be prepared.”
“It’s hard to believe that nobody from Jersey City got a chance to go D-I except us three girls,” Sierra said. “It’s going to be a fun experience for all of us.”—JCM