#TGW: And Away We Go! Go! Go!

Feb. 7, 2018

Teams tend to take on the personality of their coach.

Georgia Tech softball, then, should be a pretty aggressive group during the 2018 season, the first under new head coach Aileen Morales.

“Things are definitely different with the new coach but it’s good,” said senior pitcher Emily Anderson. “We’re all very excited about them and we like working with them.”

“It’s a very hard-working atmosphere — 100 percent effort every practice, every rep,” said senior second baseman Malea Bell. “I think that our new coaches embody a hard-working attitude and have really pushed that on us in the fall and the off-season and practices for the preseason.”

They’ll show how that hard work has paid off as the regular season begins this weekend at The Sand Dollar Classic Softball Tournament in Gulf Shores, Alabama. The Yellow Jackets face Lamar Friday afternoon, first pitch is scheduled for 2 p.m., Penn State and Florida A&M at 1 and 4 p.m. on Saturday and finally Lipscomb at 11 a.m. on Sunday (all starts Eastern Time).

Morales, who was hired as the program’s sixth head coach on June 7, 2017, was a third-team All-American as a junior and a three-time all-ACC middle infielder (twice first-team) in her playing days on The Flats (2005-08) and made her mark by wreaking havoc on the bases.

She’s still the school’s all-time leader in stolen bases (154, fourth all-time in ACC history), and stolen base attempts (173) — she had an .890 success rate — and has the top two single season stolen base marks (46 her senior year, 44 her freshman year), and three of the top five (34 her junior year is fifth). “Amo” sparked the ‘05 team that set school marks for steals (159) and attempts (188) on her way to being named ACC co-Freshman of the Year and second-team all-ACC honors.

Morales has transferred her aggressive approach as a player to the players she’s coached. Georgia Tech found that out first-hand last year when she brought her Radford Highlanders to Mewborn Field and split a twinbill with the Jackets. She’ll try and instill that approach into Georgia Tech, which last season had 38 steals in 49 attempts, both sixth in the ACC.

“I remember they were very aggressive on the bases and that’s something that she talks to us about a lot whenever we scrimmage and during practices,” said Bell. “She’s always telling us to take advantage of the other team’s mistakes. If they leave a base open, take the opportunity to take that base. Taking extra bases, that’s a huge thing.”

Moving up in runs scored — Georgia Tech was sixth last season — also would be a huge thing. To that end, the Jackets will count on the teaching of new assistant coach Reese Mariconda.

“Her hitting technique is great. She hasn’t changed any of our swings. She’s just brought her expertise and I think we’ve really bought in to that,” said Bell, who is coming off her best season at the plate, hitting .260, with 44 hits, 11 doubles, seven homers, 33 RBIs and 19 walks — she also had 12 multi-hit games, and her first multi-homer game on May 7 against Pittsburgh. “I like the way she teaches it. I’m a visual learner, so when she shows us drills it’s easier to pick it up because she actually shows us how to do it. She’s really focused on power in the legs. The way she breaks it down makes complete sense. So I’m very excited to see how much her hitting will improve (us).”

Bell could be a big piece to an offensive puzzle that must replace last season’s leading hitter Jessica Kowalewicz and four-year sparkplug Samantha Pierannunzi. They will return seniors Kelsey Chisholm, who tied for the team lead in round-trippers (11 with Pierannunzi), led the team in RBIs (41), had a .547 slugging (second behind Pierannunzi) and .360 on-base percentage, and Draven Sonnon (.291, 6, 24, .470, .404 on-base percentage) and junior Katie Krzus (.303, 4, 16, .439, .395 OBP) among upperclassmen.

On the mound, Anderson leads a staff that had its ups and downs, finishing with a 4.82 ERA (9th in the ACC), and against whom opponents hit .296 (8th) with 443 hits (also 8th). She was solid when healthy, going 10-14 in 27 starts, 14 complete games (five of those extra-inning CGs), a 3.91 ERA in 159.1 innings pitched with 111 strikeouts, 8th in the ACC.

Anderson sees new assistant coach Alison Owen as a good addition.

“She’s great,” said Anderson, who goes back to her early teens with Owen, having played travel ball with her dad. “She really understands pitchers and develops a good relationship with us and works to our strengths and what we like to throw.”

With sophomore Brooke Barfield (3-10, 5.30 in 27 games, 13 starts) coming back and freshman Naomi Dickerson vying for appearances in the circle, Anderson has high hopes for the pitchers.

“I would really like to see us grow as a staff so that not all of the pressure has to be on one particular pitcher,” she said. “I think it’s great that Brooke has seen a season so she can bring her experiences and just help Naomi (Dickerson), take it one pitch at a time and hopefully it will end up well.”

The Jackets have nine incoming freshmen, all of whom are challenging for spots, be it in the circle, on the infield and in the outfield.

“Our freshmen have so much talent and have worked so hard in practice and have really just competed against us,” said Bell. “We’ve pushed one another during practice, which is great. They’ve brought a lot of energy to practice. (Infielder) Lilly (Hooper), for instance, she’s one of the hardest workers on the team and she really pushes other people to do their best. I think that’s great for our program with the freshmen coming in. I think they’re going to be great leaders and they really push us to do our best as well.

“We have a lot of competition at each spot,” she added. “As coach Morales has been talking to us in practice, no spots are filled. It’s all about who is working the hardest, who’s producing, who’s executing. I’m very excited to see how it plays out in our first game.”

That first game comes against Lamar, picked for fourth in the Southland Conference, in the first ever meeting between the schools. Tech has had pretty good success against the other teams in the Sand Dollar, sporting a 15-5 overall mark.

Tech is 7-1 all-time against FAMU, which is picked to win the MEAC’s South Division, they’re 5-1 against Lipscomb, which has reached the Atlantic Sun Tournament Championship Game in 11 of the last 12 years, and has broken even (3-3) vs. Penn State, which finished 12th in the powerful Big Ten last season. Tech has an axe to grind with the Nittany Lions, who have won the last three meetings in the series, including a sweep at Mewborn in last year’s ACC-Big Ten Challenge. Anderson had a nine-strikeout complete game in game one, a heartbreaking 3-2 loss, while Bell went 3-for-4, driving in both runs. She’d go 2-for-4 on Sunday, with three RBIs on a two-run homer and RBI single, making it 5-for-8 on the weekend, with the homer and five RBIs.

Past success is nice, but it’s also in the past. These Jackets are excited to get this new era off on the right foot.

“Early on I think we’re just trying to establish ourselves as a team, a new team this year, a new Georgia Tech under new coaches,” said Anderson, adding with a laugh, “I’m excited to go down and play in some warm weather.”

“We’ve really been focusing on what we can do to prepare for this weekend, getting ready for competition,” said Bell. “I’m beyond excited to start the season with all my teammates. We’ve worked our butts off. So I’m very excited to see what we do.”

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