FRONT ROYAL — Skyline senior Jillian Shannon hit a milestone recently in becoming the first Hawks softball player in a decade to sign with an NCAA Division I program.
Shannon, a catcher for a Skyline team that has made three straight Class 3 state semifinal appearances, signed a national letter of intent to play softball at George Mason University last week. She celebrated the occasion with a signing day ceremony on Monday afternoon alongside family, friends and coaches.
Even Remy, Shannon’s 3-year-old labrador retriever — who also is a certified therapy dog and Shannon’s “forever best friend” — was in attendance inside Skyline’s gymnasium on Monday afternoon donning a green and yellow GMU bandana around his neck.
Shannon is the first Skyline softball player to sign a Division I letter of intent since 2012 grads Taylor Henry and Sabrie Neeb each accomplished the feat.
“It’s always been a dream of mine to play at the Division I level and to just continue my career,” Shannon said after taking a round of pictures on Monday. “I’ve been playing for my whole life, so going to college to play softball is crazy. (Skyline softball coach) John Ritter has helped a lot through the process and getting me to where I need to be for the school. My dad and my mom have been a real impact on my softball career. My whole family is just so supportive through everything. (Hawks girls basketball coach Jim) Kenney understands all of the missing basketball for softball because the No. 1 priority is travel softball.”
Shannon, whose older sister attended George Mason, said she’d been committed to the university since September 2020. She noted her familiarity with the Patriots’ softball program — she’d frequented softball camps and clinics at GMU — and her relationship with first-year head coach Justin Walker, who was previously an assistant with the Patriots and took over the program on an interim basis in April 2020 before being named the head coach in July, as major selling points.
Shannon said she took an official visit to George Mason in March and returned to campus recently for a visit during which the softball team took her to a soccer match and let her attend practice.
“I went there a couple weeks ago and I just fell in love with it,” Shannon said. “I really like the coach, Justin Walker. He’s amazing. I love the team. I love the girls. I just can’t wait to get down there.”
Though Shannon said she talked to “a whole bunch of coaches” during the recruiting process, her first interaction with Walker drew from her “an instant yes” in her commitment to the Patriots. Ritter said it was pretty clear throughout the past year where his senior catcher was heading to play college ball.
“She went to their camps and everything and I think her heart was pretty set on that from the get-go,” Ritter said. “I know there have been other schools that have talked to her. I don’t know which ones because last year when we had the conversation about it you could tell she was pretty set on it. That’s where she wanted to go.”
In her first varsity action as a junior last year, Shannon batted .341 (15-for-44) with a homer, five doubles, 13 RBIs and 14 runs scored in 16 games played while helping lead Skyline to a Region 3B title and a spot in the Class 3 state semis for the third straight season. Shannon, who also threw out seven of 19 base stealers from behind the plate, was named a second team All-Northwestern District (Class 3) and All-Region 3B catcher last spring.
Shannon, who plays travel softball for the Tri-State Thunder, did not get to play her sophomore season in 2020 when COVID-19 forced the cancellation of spring sports across the state.
“You always like to see the kids do well, move on,” Ritter said. “(Shannon has a) good work ethic. She earned it. You’ve got to put the time in, and she put the time in. At the end of the day, as a coach you’re proud.”
George Mason went 18-17 last season, including a 9-15 mark in Atlantic 10 Conference play, as Walker led the Patriots to their first winning season since 2014.
Shannon, who said she wants to continue to strengthen her hitting, catching ability and her softball IQ as she prepares for the college level, said solidifying her college destination has taken the pressure off of her on the diamond.
“When I talked to them and I was like ‘yes, I want to verbally commit,’ it was like a whole relief came off my shoulders,” Shannon said. “When you’re not committed you have that (mentality that) I have to play good for coaches to look at me. Now it’s just like you still play good but … if I don’t do good in a game I don’t have to impress anybody because I’m already going there.”