PHOTO BY MIKE CAMPBELL
Tess Denning bats for University of Northwestern Ohio against Rochester on April 3. Denning, a Dalton graduate, broke records for the Racers and was 10th in the nation for home runs last season.
PHOTO BY JORDAN THOMAS HARMON | JH Photography
Dalton graduate Tess Denning slides to base April 24 at the University of Northwestern Ohio game against Aquinas College.
The stats speak for themselves.
As a freshman first-base player last year, Dalton graduate Tess Denning was a leader for the University of Northwestern Ohio Racers in many categories. She broke school records in home runs and slugging percentage. She also led the Wolverine-Hoosier Athletic Conference in HRs and SLGs.
She was a leader in runs scored, homeruns, runs batted in, walks, batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, total bases and extra-base hits.
Her 15 home runs placed her 10th in the country, and she also was 10th in the nation for her slugging percentage, according to National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics statistics.
Scanning the stats doesn’t tell the whole story, however. The 4.0-gpa student is dedicated, hard-working and lifts up her teammates.
A love of sports runs in the Denning family. Denning, daughter of Troy and Linda Denning, followed in the footsteps of her big sister, Brooke, who also played softball. The girls grew up familiar with softball because their father, also a Dalton grad, was an avid men’s fastpitch and slowpitch player for years.
Troy Denning likes to study stats and he pointed out that percentage-wise Tess rises to the top in the nation for home runs per at bat, and ties for first in home runs per game. She only played 40 games and was at bat 119 times compared to the two chart-toppers who played in 64 and 63 games and were at bat 219 and 183 times. Tess Denning finished with a .387 batting average, .448 on-base percentage and .840 SLG.
Denning is one to watch. She made a name for herself at Dalton High School and in Wayne County playing softball, volleyball and basketball for the Lady Dawgs. Now, she’s building a reputation at the collegiate level.
She was one of four – and the only freshman on her softball team – to pick up first-team honors handed out by the WHAC.
The University of Northwestern Ohio ended the 2022 season in the WHAC tournament by taking down Indiana Tech before falling late to Aquinas. More information, articles and photos from the season are available at unohracers.com.
Her traveling softball team coach, Dave Smith, says Denning belongs in a local sports hall of fame.
“Tess is an outstanding athlete in every sport she plays in,” Smith said. “To me, Tess is one of those athletes that really deserves to be in the Hall of Fame at Dalton.”
Smith said the personality of his entire team reflects their humble nature. They are aware that they have been supported over the years and they are eager to pay it forward and help others in return. They’re competitive and hard-working and their focus on the team instead of themselves helps them to rise to the top.
Denning is “one of the biggest cheerleaders on the bench although we have a very humble team actually,” said Smith, who coaches USA Elite, and also is the head softball coach for Wooster High School. “I’m very lucky to coach such talented young ladies.”
This past season, the USA Elite lost only two games. Performing well on a travel ball team is a way for players to catch the eye of college recruiters.
“Softball has evolved so much as far as colleges go and recruiting,” Smith said. “They recruit more through travel ball than through high school ball for the simple reason they can see hundreds of thousands of kids a weekend. We played in tournaments where there have been over 100 teams.”
Smith said his team plays well together, which is key. They are a small organization competing at a high level.
“Our theory always has been sports are supposedly to take stress out of your life not to add stress to your life,” Smith said. “That’s been my coaching philosophy for years. I think the players I’ve been fortunate enough to coach make me successful. That’s our goal with anybody who comes and plays for us. We want them to just relax and enjoy the game.”
Denning may shake her head at any kind of recognition. She is thankful she has made some of her closest friends through softball and has had inspiring coaches.
“You’re your biggest critic playing for a coach like (Dave Smith) in a relaxed environment,” Denning said. “For me, I excel when I’m having fun and I’m not so worried about the performance, and playing for him allowed me to do that. I’m so thankful I was able to play for his team for so long.”
Playing softball, volleyball and basketball for Dalton instilled a good work ethic, Troy Denning said.
“She’s a very hard worker,” he said. “Even from high school, playing three sports, she basically always had two sports going on.”
Tess played this summer in the inaugural softball game, during the dedication of the Howard J. Wenger Softball Field, pitting Lady Dawgs alumni against current players. The smiling and knowledgeable 6-foot-1 19-year-old may also have been spotted working at Dunham’s Sports in Wooster this summer.
Over the years, Tess has always had passionate coaches who pushed teams to practice, and Troy Denning said he could see his daughter improve under them.
Tess was wooed by several universities and accepted a four-year softball scholarship at UNOH. The program is 10 years old and has been led by Tracy Coffman who built the program from scratch and has led her team to many victories.
“They’re building in the right direction for sure,” Denning said. “It’s nice to see we’ve made an impact on the league in 10 years.”
Denning loves the softball program at UNOH and her experience so far.
“I wouldn’t trade it for the world,” Denning said. “I think getting to play a college sport, no matter what the sport is, is a special experience. It doesn’t matter what level intramural or anything. I think you’re getting to make new relationships with people you wouldn’t have met otherwise. I think that’s really important as you become an adult and a lot of jobs have to have networking and things like that. The relationships you’re creating with people are one of a kind.”
She doesn’t pay attention to statistics. She is all about her team. And that’s the advice she would give to others following her journey.
“I had no idea I was going to be as successful as I was,” Denning said. “It was going out there and wanting to perform for the benefit of my team. I just wanted to help my team win some games. So I wasn’t going out there trying to get any record or anything like that. You can’t try to hit home runs or try to get a base hit or anything,” she continued.” Personally, I have to go out there with the mental approach of just wanting to move a runner, get them into position, or get myself on base if I’m the first one of the inning, the first at bat, or anything that will help my team put some runs on the board.”
She has further advice for young student-athletes who look up to her.
“Get your name out there and go out there and perform every day to the best of your ability,” Denning said. “I found that it really helps when you are choosing and wanting to perform for the benefit of your team. As soon as you start putting your personal stats above the benefit of the team things don’t start panning out as you hoped. I think that’s really important.”
During her first season at UNOH, she knew she was going to have to step up to be a leader and she understood she was going to be one of the few freshmen who would have the opportunity to play consistently. With a year under her belt, it will be something to see how Denning performs this year. More than half the team will be new players with a large group of freshmen coming in, she said. She knows her sophomore year will be tougher for a few reasons and she’s up to the challenge and will continue to go out on the field and do her best.
“There’s going to be a lot more pressure on the couple of us who are returning just to set an example for them and be good leaders and someone they can look up to and understand how the program is working and running,” Denning said. “I think it’s going to be a lot tougher on me and all the returning girls because you get one more year and the coaches understand you a little more they know what to throw you versus not throw you.“
Denning is in the Sport Marketing and Management program at UNOH. She said she can go in different directions after graduation thanks to the program and ultimately she may like to be an athletic director for a large university like Ohio State. After an internship she may know more about what she would like to pursue. She said she would enjoy planning and organizing events between a professional sports team and communities.
Denning said she is thankful for her upbringing and her experience at Dalton High School. She said if she had been at a larger school she may not have had the opportunity to play three sports.
“I think playing all three sports helped me to organize,” she said. “You have to be on top of your homework and planning everything with practice and games that helped me a lot. We have such great teachers at Dalton I think they really prepared me — Mr. McFarren, Mr. Gregory, Mr. Shipley — that helped me really get ready for the real world and especially college.”
Denning doesn’t forget her roots and she has a good support system at home. Besides her parents and sister, she has two huge fans in her family: her grandparents, Jim and Char Denning. The couple went to almost every UNOH game.
This fall, the Racers will prepare for the season beginning with weight training and some games against opponents the team wouldn’t play during the season.
Denning’s plan is to continue working hard for her team and playing the sport she loves.
“Just growing up, that was always my favorite sport and softball was the game for me,” she said. “As much as I loved the other sports, softball always had my heart.”