Fight Club

March 18, 2016

By Jon Cooper
The Good Word

Atlanta Braves Manager Fredi Gonzalez recently joked on a local radio talk show how he handles tough losses, “I sleep like a baby — I wake up crying every two hours.”

No one would have blamed Georgia Tech softball head coach Shelly Hoerner if she claimed a similar sleep pattern while her Yellow Jackets were starting the season 5-14, 1-5 in ACC play, with nine losses by three-or-fewer runs, three of those in extra innings and two of the extra-innings games lasting at least 11 innings. Then, again, Hoerner, who may already be on that sleep schedule courtesy of two-year-old daughter, Meeka May, would find a bright side in getting a chance to have extra quality time with her.

Finding positives is simply the way Hoerner is. There are always positives abounding. If you can’t find one you’re not looking hard enough. It’s the way Hoerner’s teams have chalked up 507 victories, and counting as a head coach.

“We just continue to stay positive. Obviously, we fix mistakes, but we also continue to stay positive and that has helped the team,” said Hoerner, whose Jackets take a four-game winning streak into this weekend’s Clearwater Spring Break Tournament in Tampa, Fla. “I challenged them after one of our losses in California and they responded. I think that was a turning point. It’s been even more positive since then because we played better this past week.”

The Jackets took a break from the ACC and got their feet back under them, snapping a four-game losing streak by sweeping North Carolina Central of the MEAC, winning single games Monday and Tuesday night at Mewborn Field, then posting a double shutout of Tennessee State of the Ohio Valley Conference on Wednesday. The Jackets bring a 25-innings scoreless streak into the tournament.

“I thought we came out with a different mentality today,” said Hoerner following Tuesday’s 7-0 win over NCCU. “If you start off with a good mentality, things start to go your way.”

Tech is hoping to bring the new mentality south with them and keep things going their way when they take on Chattanooga of the Southern Conference (15-12, 7-6 in neutral- site games) at 11:15 a.m. today, host South Florida of the American Athletic Conference (19-9, 14-6 at home) at 4, play Hartford of the America East (2-17, 2-7 in neutral-site games) at 11:45 a.m. on Saturday, LIU-Brooklyn of the Northeast (9-16, 8-14 in neutral-sites) at 2:15 p.m., then closes the tournament with Northwestern (7-12, 6-10 in neutral-site games) at 11:15 a.m. on Sunday. 

Mindset matters to Hoerner. She feels finding the mental toughness to handle and overcome adversity will lead to finding ways to win games on the field and serve as a life lesson off it. She’s already starting to see it and see the team come together.

“In the past, we’ve kind of snowballed the other way and we haven’t known how to say, ‘Stop.’ This year we have continued to fight and that’s the difference in what I’ve seen the last two years and this year,” she said. “Even if the results don’t go our way, we haven’t seen it snowball. Demeanor is contagious. I see a different demeanor of the team. I see them not only working hard but having fun. 

“It’s a game. You have to have fun,” she continued. “If you don’t love the game you’re not going to be successful. I’ve seen that difference this year with this team, too. They love each other, they’re doing it for each other and that’s something that I love to see.”

Hoerner loves what she’s seen in the team leaders stepping up, especially junior center fielder Samantha Pierannunzi

“Sam sets the tone and has really learned to be that leader of stepping up in different situations,” said Hoerner. “Whether it’s on the field or off the field, It just can’t come from the coaching staff. There has to be good leadership within a team in order for a team to be successful on and off the field and represent their school in a positive way. I see that a lot in Sam. She represents us so well.”

Sophomore pitcher Emily Anderson also has been a revelation this season.

“I love her mentality. She is just a go-getter this year and has a lot more confidence and it shows when she’s out there in the circle,” Hoerner said. “To see the difference within a year is exciting, to just know that she has grown. Her confidence just exuberates to everybody on the field. They want to play behind her. I love what I’m seeing from her and just know that she has such a positive attitude as well about going out there every single day to get better. I’m really happy with what I’ve seen from her.”

Anderson’s performance was especially nice personally for Hoerner on Feb. 27. Facing Southern Utah in Tech’s second game of the middle day of the UC Santa Barbara Tournament, the sophomore righty took all the thunder out of the Thunderbirds’ bats, twirling a two-hit, five-inning shutout, in the Yellow Jackets’ 2-0 win. The CG was great for Anderson, who threw 7⅓ shutout innings on the day, and was momentous for Hoerner, as it marked the 500th victory of her career.

“I didn’t even realize it was 500 until after the game when something was said. Five hundred wins means I’ve been coaching a long time. I’m old,” she said, with a laugh. “It’s not about me. It’s about the past players and the current players that have continued to work hard both on and off the field and be great team-players. It’s all about those players, as well as the assistant coaches. They’ve put in the time. All the work behind the scenes to prepare for teams and to get those wins. It’s not about me.”

It’s been an interesting route to 500 for Hoerner, who was an All-Conference player at Barry University and was two-time all-conference at Canisius. She served one year as an assistant then coached one season at Valdosta State before going back to Barry. She’d lead them to a 191-82 mark (a .700 winning percentage) over five seasons, including 41- and 52-win seasons and berths in the Division II College World Series and the DII Tournament. She then built up the College of Charleston’s program, going 254-206 (.552) in eight seasons and finishing with back-to-back-to-back 37-win seasons before coming to Georgia Tech prior to the 2014 season. 

“To be honest, I don’t remember the first win. I remember it was at Valdosta. I couldn’t tell you who it was against. It was just another game to me,” Hoerner said. “My job out there is to go out there and win every game or to get better every game. It’s more about the kids on that team that I remember than about that win.”

There are some games that rate above others but Hoerner admits she never allowed herself to celebrate long.

“I was coaching Division II in the World Series (with Barry) and we beat North Dakota State. Beating Tennessee when I was at the College of Charleston at Charleston stands out to me. I would also say beating Texas A&M last year here stands out to me. But I don’t even think about who we played because it’s always preparing for the next game.

“Another big win for me was at Valdosta State when I was at Barry to win the regional tournament,” she added. “I had recruited both teams so it was a big and memorable win. I was only at VSU a year and a half so I had a big impact on both teams. I loved all those kids.”

Hoerner, who was honored on the field in a pregame ceremony and was given a framed collage commemorating win No. 500 prior to last Saturday’s first game against Boston College, is 48-72 at Georgia Tech but believes the program is headed in the right direction and her program’s signature win is coming.

“Being at Georgia Tech, we hope to win conference titles. Those are what our goals are here,” she said. “The future is bright for us. First it’s the process. We do the little, detailed things right, the big things and the big games we’ll eventually win.”

Hoerner is positive about that.

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