They've Come A long Way

May 12, 2011

By Matt Winkeljohn
Sting Daily

Even though this is the first time, it seems natural that Georgia Tech is playing host to the ACC softball tournament this weekend. Why not stage the premier event in the season at the premier facility in the league?

Nowhere in the ACC does softball pop like it does on The Flats.

It seems a distant memory, but it wasn’t long ago that Tech played its softball off campus, if just barely so, at a now defunct facility off 14th. That wasn’t exactly a bare-bones deal, but there wasn’t much meat on the rack.

The field itself was top shelf. Otherwise? Eh.

Mewborn Field is primo. It is a stadium, in fact, and not just a field. The locker room is epic. The old locker rooms were, well . . . players stored the bulk of their gear within a building just south of Alexander Memorial Coliseum, and every day would lug most of it to tinier storage spaces near the 14th Street facility.

Now, there are three indoor hitting “tunnels.” Then, there was one. The newer place has video recording capabilities so players can study themselves in hopes of seeing and correcting bad habits. The old place? Maybe a calendar on the wall.

The program’s kept pace too.

Tech won its third straight ACC regular season crown, and with a 5 p.m. game today against Virginia, the Yellow Jackets will begin pursuit of their third straight tournament title. After that, back to the NCAAs for the school-record fifth straight season – every year of Perkins’ tenure.

Seniors Jessica Weaver and Christy Jones were there for the last year of the then, and they’ve been around for all three years of the now.

“We’d have to get the water coolers, drive over there and we had little bitty lockers where we kept our stuff,” said Jones, Tech’s leadoff hitter and center fielder.

Evolution has come on several levels within the softball program. Where a team once hoped, it now expects.

Weaver, who is from Kingston, Ga., long wanted to attend Tech. She was recruited by coach Sharon Perkins’ predecessor, Ehren Earlywhine, who left The Flats to return to his alma matter, Missouri. She didn’t really know what to expect when the program transitioned coaches.

“[Earlywhine] was very laid back, just completely opposite,” said Weaver, a catcher. “I had never heard of [Perkins, who had been an assistant at Georgia]. She had never heard of me. We were both going at it blind. Throughout the years, coach Perkins has changed tremendously, and I’ve changed tremendously.”

Tech softball was not in the tank when Perkins took over, but the Jackets (44-9, 18-2 ACC) have gone from good to very, very good bordering on great. They made it to the NCAA Super Regionals two years ago, playing host in fact.

Eventual national champion Washington, whose facility was not capable of hosting a Super Regional, eliminated the Jackets. Perkins has built a monster.

Tech has won an ACC-record 24 consecutive three-game series in conference play, dating back more than three seasons. The Jackets lead the league in hitting (.333 batting average to No. 2 Boston College’s .286), and have five of the top six home run hitters in the conference.

Junior shortstop Kelsi Weseman, who leads the league in almost every meaningful statistical category, seems a lock to win ACC player of the year honors. That would follow former teammate Jen Yee, who won the award last season.

Senior Kristen Adkins (20-5, 1.49 ERA), who transferred from Florida before Perkins’ third season is a candidate for pitcher of the year.

Last year, Tech’s Hope Rush – a Perkins recruit – was ACC freshman of the year. This spring, third baseman Alysha Rudnick has a strong shot at the honor.

Jones was first recruited by Earlywhine, and then Perkins.

“I remember her saying how far she planned on going; `We’re not just going to win the ACC tournament. I’m hoping in the next five years, we’re going to the College World Series, and we’re definitely going to Super Regionals,’ ” Jones recalls Perkins saying during recruiting. “I think she’s done a tremendous job building this program, and setting us up for success.

“She knows that we know what she expects so some of the responsibilities that she puts on us she expects us to teach the freshmen, or lead the team.” That’s been another evolution.

Perkins inherited some serious talent, including current assistant Aileen Morales. The head coach was a bit more a control freak then than now as she worked to mold her team in her image. As Weaver said, “I think the first couple years it had to be more her team, but I would say now it’s our team.”

To that end, Perkins has surrendered oversight of her pitchers mostly to Shaina Ervin, a first-year assistant who pitched at N.C. State and coached at Chattanooga. Tech softball has become a brand.

“Our sophomore year after going on ESPN a lot of people said that was the first time they had watched softball,” Weaver said. “They’ve kept up with it, and our fan base has grown tremendously. Our [summer] camp numbers are out of control.

“You kind of build a relationship there, and they come back for games. And you sign autographs, and the kids say, `Do you remember me?’ “

If players drive the brand that Perkins has built, and they have, the coach still has certain control issues.

“Coach Aileen played for her for a year,” Jones said. “She makes sure when we’re on the road that we have to get the right drinks and things to have on the bus.” The right drinks?

Said Jones, “No sodas for us, sodas for coach Perkins.”

So, not everybody gets the pop.

Let’s hear some feedback on this team, a great group of athletes and coaches. Send it to stingdaily@gmail.com

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