TGW: Opening Day

Feb. 17, 2016

By Jon Cooper | The Good Word

It’s always darkest before the dawn, but there’s nothing quite like seeing those first rays of sunrise.

Those rays of light have finally come over the horizon for Georgia Tech Softball, which has been waiting for Wednesday since last April 26.

“We are so excited to finally get on the field against another team,” said Coach Shelly Hoerner, who begins her third season on The Flats. “It’s been a long month of practice and just preparing for our opponent so we’re just really excited. We are as close and connected as we’ve been since I’ve been here. I really like that and I like the mindset we have right now.”

The first test of all the preparation comes Wednesday at Panthersville, when Georgia Tech takes on Georgia State.

Being the season opener makes the game big enough. Throw in the intra-city rivalry and the game takes on even greater status.

“Panthersville is still close. It’s only like a 15-minute drive for us. We’ll have a lot of our fans there,” said junior center fielder Sam Pierannunzi, who last season led the team in batting (.306), on-base percentage (.422), hits (44), doubles (8), triples (3), runs (26) and walks (26). “We’re really excited to play. Atlanta is our home turf. We’re excited to get started.”

“We’re very excited to play Georgia State, obviously, because there’s a big rivalry going on there,” agreed senior second baseman Maddie Lionberger, who earned All-ACC recognition (second team) for the second straight season in 2015. “There’s always been a really cool vibe. It’s a really competitive atmosphere and I think that whether we’re home or away we’re going to bring that competitive fire wherever we go. We’re just excited to get started.”

The Jackets are really excited to try and turn around recent events against the Panthers. While they’ve won 45 of the 66 games played, they have lost the last two games, including last year’s 7-6 loss at Panthersville, where the Jackets came within a swing of coming all the way back from a 7-2 seventh-inning deficit.

The Panthers will be hungry for their first win, as they started the season 0-5 at the rugged Kajikawa Classic in Tempe, Ariz., where they lost to No. 4 Oregon (11-0 in six innings), No. 23 Utah (9-0 in five), and No. 24 Notre Dame (10-4) as well as to Cal Poly (5-4) and Indiana (4-1).

Georgia Tech will look to break in a roster that is very young — the Jackets have only six upperclassmen while fielding five freshmen and five sophomores.

Hoerner sees an exciting mix and one that is helping each other.

“I feel that the freshmen are a mature group, but I also feel that the returners have helped them get acquainted in things like how Georgia Tech Softball runs,” she said. “That is a testament to those returners of believing in the program and what we’re doing and what we all want to accomplish this year and for the future of this program. I give the returners a lot of credit, but those freshmen were brought in for a reason. So they are a mature group as a whole, which I really appreciate.”

Samantha Pierannunzi feels that the unknown is a double-edged sword that will cut Georgia Tech’s way quite a bit.

“Some people look at a young team and see it as a negative thing. We have the exact opposite perspective,” she said. “For one thing, younger girls are girls that other teams have never seen before, so you have no idea what they bring to the table. That’s a scary thing for opponents.

“We have youth and it’s talented youth, and the only thing you have to go off is the fact that I’ve told you it’s talented youth. So you have no idea,” she added. “It’s kind of an element of surprise. This freshman class is very mature. They don’t have the experience that some of the older girls have, but they bring some really cool elements to the table that some of us can learn from.”

Following Wednesday’s opener, Tech will face a whole new and different challenge.

Beginning Friday night and all weekend long, the Jackets will host games in softball’s first ACC-Big Ten Challenge. They’ll face Ohio State (3-1) on Friday evening (first pitch 6:30), then play a twin bill on Saturday, first against the Buckeyes beginning at 3:30 p.m., then against Purdue (3-2) at 5:30 p.m., then conclude against Purdue at 12:30 p.m. on Sunday. Syracuse, which is 1-3, having lost three straight while scoring two runs all season, also will represent the ACC.

The Yellow Jackets and Orange will try to do their part to continue ACC dominance in women’s sports over the Big Ten, as ACC basketball has never lost a challenge (the conference is 6-0-3, with ties in back-to-back years and three of the last five) — the men are 10-5-2 all-time but have lost two straight and are 0-5-2 over the last seven years.

“I think this is a great opportunity for both conferences,” said Hoerner, who said she was putting her plans for the weekend on hold until after the Georgia State game. “It’s going to be truly a great tournament, tough competition. I think it’s a great way to start this challenge between our two conferences. I’m pretty excited for this new opportunity and to play some great competition right off the bat.”

“I think the cross-conference competition is also very important because I think that the ACC for softball has been making some very big statements lately,” said Lionberger. “You have Pittsburgh and Florida State and NC State and UNC and all these schools being super successful in the NCAA tournament. So to come out at the beginning of the season and set a really great tone for the ACC is, obviously, not only important for us but for the conference as a whole. It’s a great opportunity to come out very strong and not only represent Georgia Tech but the ACC as well.”

Pierannunzi is not only more determined to make a statement but is confident about the Jackets ability to do so.

“We’re excited to get on our home turf. When they look at that chalk for the first game, it’s a whole new ball game,” she said. “I’ve been doing my homework on them. I look at it as an opportunity to gain some experience, get some hits to start off the season and gain some confidence.”

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