March 3, 2017
By Jon Cooper
The Good Word
Some things are just meant to be.
The union of Georgia Tech softball and assistant coach Rodney DeLong is one such thing, even if it didn’t start out that way.
“To be honest, I called a colleague of mine about somebody else. I was going to get a reference,” recalled softball head coach Shelly Hoerner. “My colleague said, ‘There’s this guy at Cameron University named Rodney.’ I didn’t even know who Cameron was. I knew it was Division II. That’s all I knew. So I said, ‘Okay, have him call me and send me his stuff.’”
They traded texts. Then, when Hoerner did call, DeLong was on vacation at the beach, with his family. But on that call they immediately hit it off.
“I hear this little girl in the background. He said, ‘I am so sorry. That’s my three-year-old daughter.’ I said, ‘Oh, no worries. I have a two-year-old. I understand,’” Hoerner recalled. “We had a great conversation. There was a vibe I felt. I just felt very comfortable at that point with him. I decided to bring him in. On the interview, he just stood out. He was very prepared, he was prepared about Georgia Tech, he was prepared about Georgia Tech softball, what his philosophies were, meshed with mine, a family man, and he was a go-getter.”
What really impressed Hoerner was the job DeLong, 34, did at Cameron, a Division II school located in his hometown of Lawton, Okla. In three seasons, he led the Aggies to a 105-60 record, a .636 winning percentage, (he was 49-38 in the Lone Star Conference), including three straight 30-win seasons, with a school-record 41 wins in 2015, and back-to-back D-II NCAA Tournament appearances.
“The bottom line is he did a lot of really, really good things with very little at Cameron,” said Hoerner. “I know what it’s like to have little at a Division II school — that is what caught my eye. Just his demeanor and his work ethic, he was the perfect candidate.”
Coming to the ACC and Georgia Tech was the perfect career opening for DeLong.
“I loved the campus, I love what the school is about, Atlanta’s a good city and I was looking for an opportunity to get to this level,” he said. “There are just a lot of good things about this place so I saw it as a promising opportunity and better than the other opportunities I was offered around the same time.
“When I got into coaching, originally I was a high school baseball coach, I got the hunger to coach at the highest level,” he added. “Softball kind of fell into my lap. I really like the game. I believe, everything happens for a reason and for whatever reason it is I’m glad this is the path I’m on.”
Georgia Tech’s hitters are glad they’re on the swing-path DeLong has put them on.
The Yellow Jackets enter this weekend’s series at national No. 1 Florida State tied for second in the ACC with 16 homers, fourth in the ACC with 167 total bases, and have four players slugging over .600 — centerfielder Samantha Pierannunzi (.696), second baseman Jessie Kowalewicz (.641), third baseman Malea Bell (.604) and 1B/RF Katie Krzus (.600). To show how far the Jackets have come, last year heading into ACC play, they’d hit only eight homers and didn’t have a player slugging as high as .500.
“One thing I’m trying to get them to do is to buy into using the whole field, hit more to the big parts of the field, which is the middle of the field,” said DeLong, who in two years as a baseball player at Cameron had 75 hits in 79 games — he also hit .390, with 10 homers, and 56 RBI in two seasons at Northern Oklahoma College. “It’s a little different to them but they’re working. They’re getting better at it.
“I’m trying to get them to basically stay compact with their swings,” he added. “Early in the year, a lot of the kids swung around the ball, hands went outside. So, we try to stay inside. We try to stay inside the ball. We try to be palm-up when we make contact with the ball. The longer we stay on plane with the pitch and the more we stay inside the ball the better hitting team we’ll be.”
As important as how the players are swinging is the selectivity of the pitches at which they’re swinging — and NOT swinging. The Jackets are second in the conference with 54 base-on-balls, 10 coming from leadoff hitter Pierannunzi, good for third in the ACC, and nine more from No. 2 hitter Kowalewicz (fourth). That’s setting the table for the heart of the order.
The Jackets have bought in to what DeLong is telling them and have worked tirelessly with him. That he’s readily available to work with them has made buying in easier.
“Rodney has brought a different demeanor to the program. He’s very calming, he’s very educated in hitting and I’ve seen a lot of great changes in the hitters already,” Hoerner said. “He has helped them to understand and work within their own hitting style. I think that’s been helpful. He’s made some changes. The kids have been very open to changes and I think that’s very important, to be open-minded. They love his demeanor and he’s been just a huge addition to our program. He loves to teach hitting and just teaching and talking about the game with these players, and the players have enjoyed learning from him. It’s a process and I can see the process working in just a short amount of time.”
That short amount of time has seen DeLong put in long hours teaching.
“He’s incredible,” said Pierannunzi, who owns this year’s team-high nine-game on-base streak and had a five-game hitting streak. “He makes himself very accessible; he’s here all the time. I’ll hit with him before and after practice or whatever and need to feel comfortable with my swing. So that’s been key in all that.”
DeLong also has impressed with his knowledge of hitting.
“He knows what he’s talking about and he really has confidence in the hitters, which we love,” said Bell, who is hitting a team-high .340, with has six multi-hit games, three multi-RBI games and a current career-high five-game hitting streak — she began 2017 with a career .117 batting average and one multi-hit game to her credit. “Any time you have questions he’s there to answer them and he knows the exact drills to help you with what you’re working on. He’s been great.”
Hoerner’s not surprised that DeLong has won over the team. She points to the same things that won her over.
“He has a way to talk to the players very positively, he has high expectations and they’ll know when they’re not meeting those,” Hoerner said. “He also has a way to help fix what’s not working. So I think THAT has been key. There’s a lot of good communication that goes on between the players and him. His rapport with the players, they jelled right away. They trust him. Now, after all these months of working with him you can tell why things are working. Is it to where it needs to be? Not yet. But you can see the progress that he’s made in a short time.”
The progress the Jackets have shown has been rewarding, but DeLong is not close to satisfied.
“I still think we have a long way to go,” he said. “There’s a learning curve, especially in the first year with what we try to do offensively, but I do see improvement overall and it’s promising. They’re getting there and they’re going to keep getting better.”
He’s eager to see how his pupils do this weekend in Tallahassee.
“Florida State’s going to be great competition,” he said. “It will only make us better playing that kind of competition. We definitely respect them but we have nothing to lose in those games. So we might as well play as hard as we can on every pitch and you never know.”