Feb. 19, 2018
The Good Word | By Jon Cooper
It’s not unusual that a player remembers her first collegiate hit.
Poll every member of the Georgia Tech Softball team — player or coach — and each will recreate hers in its entirety. We’re talking where it happened, against what team, game situation, opposing pitcher, what pitch that opposing pitcher threw, the pitch’s location, how many bases the hit was worth, how many runs scored on the hit, how many RBIs she got and maybe even how many she should have gotten!
What is unusual is when an entire program and every ensuing team remembers, or at least will be able to reference, it.
Breanna Roper has that distinction.
Roper made personal and program history on Friday afternoon at Mewborn Field, with two outs in the top of the fourth inning, when she blasted an 0-1 pitch from Nebraska pitcher Regan Mergele over the wall in center turning a 6-0 Georgia Tech deficit into 6-4. The shot was not only her first collegiate hit (and Tech’s, for that matter) AND her first home run, it was a grand slam.
“While I was up to bat I was just thinking how we were down and we had to get runners in and I was going to do whatever it took to get runners in,” said the Woodstock, Ga., native and former Woodstock High School star, who entered the game, the first of last weekend’s Big Ten/ACC Challenge 0-for-3. “I knew it went far. I didn’t think it was out.”
Roper crushed Mergele’s “Debra” — “That’s down-the-middle pitches,” she explained, with a laugh. “Fastball down the middle,” — for the 34th grand slam in program history, making her only the 25th Yellow Jacket to hit one.
She wouldn’t describe herself as a power hitter, but assistant coach Reese Mariconda is changing that some.
“I’ve been changing my swing so I’ve become more powerful,” she said. “I’ve been creating separation and overall that’s creating more power.”
Friday’s blast has separated Roper from a lot of present and former Yellow Jackets and put her in a pretty exclusive club, with some pretty impressive company, including current head coach Aileen Morales and Assistant Coach Kate Kantor. She also joins current teammates senior Kelsey Chisholm, who coincidentally hit her grand slam against No. 20 Nebraska in 2015 as a freshman, junior Katie Krzus, who blasted hers as a sophomore on San Juan against No. 24 California, and senior Draven Sonnon, who connected last May 7 at Mewborn against Pittsburgh.
Morales and Kantor both remember really big flies.
“I didn’t hit many home runs. There are only like two or three home runs I even remember hitting in my career. That grand slam was one of them because I’d never hit a grand slam before. I think it was at Coastal (Carolina),” said Morales, who hit 18 long balls in her career on The Flats and correctly identified victimizing the Chanticleers in 2008. “It was opposite field, my senior year. That was fun. It’s something that if you square it up, you hit it the right way, sometimes the ball does the work for you, or the pitcher does the work for you.”
“I don’t think I really understood how cool it was to actually hit a grand slam. Not everybody gets to do that in their whole career,” said Kantor, whose granny came in game one of a doubleheader at Florida State on April 24, 2010, a 14-1 Jackets rout, and was one of a program-record nine grand slams hit that season. “In the moment I was probably just really focused on winning that game, but looking back on it now, it is something that you can say you did. During a time, also, we were ACC Champions, we were winning the series. So it’s awesome to feel like you were a small part of that win.”
Returning the Yellow Jackets to their glory days is a theme for Morales and her staff this year. It will include making a big deal out of milestones like joining the Grand Slam Club.
“I think it’s cool to go back to some of those traditions. I remember when I hit mine, everybody was like, ‘You’re in the Grand Slam Club!’ Morales recalled. “I think it’s an honor to be in that group of people. I wasn’t a power hitter, so just like (Roper) saying, ‘I don’t hit for power,’ it’s like when you get ahold of it you can. So we’ll welcome her into the club.”
“We did many traditions and after you hit a grand slam, at the end of the game, the coaches welcome you to the club,” said Kantor. “We’re definitely going to start having some sort of tradition that we create with this team. Just kind of make it a little competition out there for them.”
While Roper’s round tripper didn’t lift the Jackets to victory in the game, it did lift the spirits of the team for the rest of the challenge, as the Jackets made Nebraska sweat out that Friday game, sparked an intense battle with them on Saturday and helped them sweep Indiana to come out of the weekend with a split.
“It was really great to have that moment,” said Kantor. “I think it definitely changed the tone for us, just putting us right back in there, at 6-4. I don’t think they realized how tough that team was going to be but the fact that we stuck with it all the way to the end, I think it definitely opened their eyes a little bit and gave them that belief they could play with the big teams.”
Morales believes there can be a lot more big hits and a lot more power hits off Roper’s bat. She’s seen it before.
“Roper’s a really good athlete. She’s still developing as a player but she has all the tools. She has a great swing. I really love her swing. For her to go up there and just tattoo a pitch, was great,” she said. “When she squares it up, she can hit for extra bases. She can hit for power. I think she’s traditionally been more of a leadoff, singles, contact hitter but she has that ability, which is exciting. That’s something that you want to develop. Ashley Thomas started out as a slapper here. By the time she was a junior, senior, she was swinging away, hitting bombs. Caitlin Lever started out short game, short game, short game. By the time she got to junior, senior year, she was mashing the ball. She has a lot of similarities to them from that development standpoint. She has the power. She doesn’t even know it, which is the crazy thing.”
Roper feels the team made progress over the weekend and can’t wait to see what’s ahead.
“I think we learned a lot about our overall team and how everyone contributes no matter what their role is. We will continue to work hard,” she said.
She also admitted she couldn’t wait to look and see who else is in “The Grand Slam Club” with her.
“Of course I am (going to look)!” she said, with a big laugh. “It’s an honor to be in there with two of my coaches and three of my teammates. But there are always things to work on. I’ll just get back to work on Monday.”