April 16, 2014
By Jon Cooper The Good Word
Wednesday night began as a special one for Georgia Tech Softball — every game day in every sport against archrival Georgia is.
For the senior class, outfielders Hayley Downs and Kaitlin Kates, catcher Alysha Rudnik and shortstop Ashley Thomas, it was extra special. It was their last time taking the field against the Bulldogs and completed an emotional few days that saw Senior Day on Saturday, completion of their final home series on Sunday and then the final game against No. 15/18 Georgia.
However, unlike on Senior Day, when the Jackets swept North Carolina, in the process getting the best of nemesis Lori Spingola — handing her a loss in Game One and reaching the Atlanta native for six runs (all earned) on 12 hits in 7 1/3 innings in the two games — there was a different emotion.
The bittersweet that ruled that day as the quartet threw ceremonial first pitches to family members, was replaced by simply bitter, as they saw red in the form of their rival.
“Coming in as a freshman, I didn’t understand the rivalry. It’s something you have to experience on the field for yourself,” said Rudnik, a Lawrenceville, Ga. native. “Looking at my last game against them I wanted it more than ever.”
“It’s one of many lasts that we’ve come up on as seniors,” added Downs, from Grayson, Ga. “There’s nothing like a rivalry game. I’ll never lose my `clean old-fashioned hate.'”
Shortstop Ashley Thomas, from McKinney, Texas, learned to feel the hate.
“Playing Georgia for the last time was bittersweet,” said Thomas. “We played a great game and came close to beating them the last game so we knew we can beat them.”
The urgency to finish their part in the rivalry on a positive note was there, especially with the bitter taste of their 9-7 loss on April 2 in Athens still in their mouths.
It didn’t work out that way, as Georgia used a six-run first, a four-run third and a three-run fourth in cruising to a 15-1, five-inning win. Rudnik’s fifth-inning single drove in Thomas, who was hit by a pitch and moved over by Downs. Tech had only three singles in the loss, its ninth in the last 10 in the series.
Regardless of the disappointment in falling to UGA and getting swept in the season series — the class was 1-6, winning 2-0 on March 14, 2012 — there can be little doubt about the impact that this senior class has had (certainly on this season, as Thomas, Downs and Rudnik bat 1, 2 and 3, and Kates has been a key role player off the bench) on the program.
The foursome came in as freshmen in 2010 and immediately contributed to the Jackets winning their third straight ACC regular-season title, then followed that up by keying a surge resulting in the school’s fourth ACC Tournament title in 2011. But the wheels came off the cart last season, as the Jackets suffered their first losing season in 12 years, and went through an off-season coaching change.
Heading into its 2014, the quartet knew it was its time to lead and had their legacy at stake.
They did what they’ve always done — lean on each other while, simultaneously providing a pillar upon which the entire team could lean.
“I really couldn’t ask for a better group,” said Downs. “We all work so well together because we all bring different traits to the table, with our talents, obviously, because we all play different positions, but also with our leadership. We all bring kind of a different dynamic to it. It’s been really cool. I wouldn’t have wanted to go out with anybody else. We’ve gone through the good and the bad together and it’s made us all incredibly close.”
“Oh, man, [this class has] been one of the greatest things about my senior experience,” agreed Rudnik, who not only has teamed with Downs for four years but also has roomed with her. “On the field, off the field, everyone has a different dynamic to her but it makes us all who we are as a class. Just to have each and every one of them is really special to me.”
The group realizes that time is running out, as Wednesday night was the penultimate home game of their careers — they will host Kennesaw State next Wednesday, sandwiched between weekend sets at Pittsburgh and Florida State.
They also understand the urgency in winning games to extend the season. The Jackets head into this weekend’s series seventh in the ACC, with a 10-12 record (they’re 21-18 overall). But they still have a chance to get back to .500 in ACC play.
While the class of ’14 won’t be satisfied with anything short of an NCAA bid, they like the state of the team moving forward. When it comes to leading by example they’ve done their job.
“I know we’ve always wanted to leave a legacy behind, to set a foundation for the program to build upon,” said Kates. “That’s something that us four together have had as our mindset for this season, to have a good work ethic, good morals, dedication for the younger girls to kind of follow in those footsteps for the program to build upon for years to come.”
They’re confident that the program is headed in the right direction as they hand it off to the Class of ’15.
“I’m excited to keep up with the Georgia Tech Softball Team once I graduate because I know they’re going to keep getting better from where they are now, even better every year,” said Thomas. “We were trying to be an example to get the younger girls to be great leaders. We wanted to build leaders in every class. I think they’re in great hands. Obviously, the new coaching staff has been great and the juniors this year, they’re all ready to lead next year.”
“We’ve been going through some tough times these past couple of weeks but I definitely think that the coaches are the right staff to get us as a program where we need to be in years to come,” said Rudnik. “I think that my class was laying the foundation of what we want Georgia Tech to be like — to be about hard work and having a good attitude and leaving it all out there. Those are the things that we wanted to instill in the other girls on the team for next year and the years to come.”
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