May 8, 2016
By Jon Cooper
The Good Word
When life gives you lemons make lemonade is the optimist’s way of saying don’t give up regardless of the curves life throws you.
Seniors Courtney Ziese, Maddie Lionberger and Morgan Taylor have handled those curves — not to mention fastballs, risers and drop balls — for four years and will have one final chance to do so at Mewborn Field in Sunday’s Senior Day doubleheader at Mewborn Field against North Carolina. First pitch is at 1 p.m. and can be seen on ESPN3. The seniors will be recognized in a pregame ceremony.
While all three arrived in Atlanta from different parts of the U.S. — Ziese from Canyon Country, Calif., Taylor from Jacksonville, Fla., and Lionberger from Austin, Texas — they found common ground in Georgia Tech softball, and formed an unbreakable bond that will last a lifetime.
“It’s just a different type of relationship you have with the people in your specific class compared to the other classes because we’ve gone through the same experiences, the same games, all the ups and downs together,” said Taylor. “I really have a special bond with Maddie and Courtney in the fact that they know everything I’ve gone through in my college career and the same for me with them. We’ve been through it all together, we really understand each other and understand where we’re coming from.”
They’ve earned special recognition from where they’ve been.
“They’ve meant a lot to myself and the program,” said head coach Shelly Hoerner, who is in her third season at the helm of the program. “They’ve made me a better coach on and off the field. I appreciate their trust in myself and the program especially through the hard times and through a coaching change. That’s always difficult. Learning and going through tough experiences, which they have, those tough experiences that they’ve gone through have made them stronger and I’ve seen that.”
The trio hit campus in 2013 and immediately made an impact, with Ziese and Taylor playing 55 games, starting 54 of them — both career-highs (Ziese will match both totals by starting all three games this weekend), while Lionberger played in 43 games (25 starts).
“Our senior class, we started out close and we’ve continued to be close through everything,” said Ziese, who will leave having led the team in homers and RBI each of the last two seasons, is one homer shy of 30 for her career (she’s right at 100 RBI). “We’ve gone through quite a few obstacles. We’ve just stuck together and understand and care for each other. So it’s crazy that this chapter for us is coming to an end, but it’s been a fun ride.”
Hoerner feels Ziese’s determination has defined her throughout her career.
“Her perseverance has really made me realize how tough she is,” Hoerner said. “I admire how she continues to grow on and off the field. Her calm demeanor has really helped mold her into the person she is, especially at the plate. I know with her persistence her career will be a success.”
Lionberger has been a consistent part of the equation that has helped settle the middle infield. From the start of her sophomore season she’s been a fixture at second base, starting every game, and twice along the way has earned All-ACC honors (first team in 2014, second team in 2015), and a place on the ACC Honor Roll (‘13 and ‘15). She felt the camaraderie immediately.
“Since day one we’ve had great chemistry,” she said. “We’ve always had amazing chemistry coming into it and that’s just played out over all four years.”
Lionberger expects Sunday to be emotional, but, as she’s always done, will put the emotion aside once she steps between the lines.
“I guess I will just go out and play it like any other game,” she said. “I don’t think it will really sink in until next year when I’m in the stands watching my teammates and I’m not playing ball anymore. But I’m just going to enjoy every last moment of it.”
Hoerner wasn’t surprised to hear of Lionberger saying she’ll be competing and enjoying the experience to the end.
“Maddie’s competitiveness and love for the game shines through daily,” Hoerner said. “Her desire to make herself better is a trait of a real winner. Her goals that she wants to accomplish, one of which is to be a pediatrician, I know she will be a great doctor. Her love for little kids, especially my daughter, is amazing. I appreciate that. I can tell how good of a pediatrician she is going to be just by how she handles my daughter on a daily basis. Her hard work and commitment in the classroom and on the field shows through with her passion every single day.”
Taylor’s similar passion and joy for the game has shown through in her four-year run, which has seen her play anywhere and everywhere called upon. This senior season saw her play both corner outfield spots as well as get back into the circle to pitch for the first time since her sophomore year of high school.
“I just tried to take it as a challenge. It’s been kind of a fun opportunity to be able, in my last year of playing softball ever, to re-live being a pitcher, sort of,” she said, with a laugh. “Do whatever it takes for my team, to help us out whenever we need.”
That unselfishness has been the rule with Taylor.
“Her team-first mentality is what I admire about her,” said Hoerner. “It has always been about her teammates. I’ve just loved watching her in the past three years continue to get better daily and grow every single day. She has such a desire for life, to live life fully, a great heart and her passion for Georgia Tech is something that I’m always going to remember. She’s an ambitious kid with a kind attitude and I know she will have a very fulfilling and successful life just because of the person she is.”
Ziese, Taylor and Lionberger all received their diplomas at Saturday’s commencement — Lionberger (biology) in the morning, Ziese and Taylor business administration) in the afternoon, an event that has been well-chronicled — and all three have their goals set for the future.
Fittingly, all three plan to stay in Atlanta.
Ziese plans to pursue career opportunities in human resources pertaining to sports, Lionberger will work as a research interviewer for The Georgia Emerging Infections Program, a collaborative project with the Georgia Department of Health, Emory and the CDC, then, ideally, apply for medical school in 2017, and Taylor will work for Home Depot in its E-Commerce Department as a brand advocate.
Hoerner has no doubt that the mark each will make in the real world will be as profound as the one they made on Georgia Tech softball.
“I know they’ll continue to be successful. They’re great people,” she said. “Just the little things that they’ve done not only for the program but my family don’t go unnoticed. I think that’s really important, too.”