June 9, 2009
Unchartered Waters Give Tech Softball Just A Taste Of What’s To Come
The 2009 Georgia Tech softball team capped its best season in program history by finishing with its highest ranking in the national polls. The Yellow Jackets finished 13th in both the final NFCA and ESPN.COM top 25 polls as well as 12th in the RPI, all program bests.
“Looking back, I am so proud of this team and what they were able to accomplish this year,” head coach Sharon Perkins said. “Our success was a complete team effort and that to me is the best part. Scanning the stat sheet, it was just so balanced – especially in the circle. All three of our pitchers [Tiffany Johnson, Kristen Adkins, Jessica Coan] contributed and we would not have gotten where we did without them. We had five players drive in more than 40 runs, two hit over .400 and seven were batting over .300 for much of the season.”
In her third season, Perkins led the Yellow Jackets to their third ACC Championship as well as the program’s first regional championship. A national seed (No. 14), for the first time ever, Tech lost to eventual national champion Washington, but according to Perkins the experience of playing in that Super Regional environment will be felt for years to come.
“I can’t tell you how many people have expressed to me how beautiful our new facility looked on ESPN during the Super Regionals. It was such a special season to open up Mewborn Field and then get to showcase it on national television that same year. With all but three starters back next year, they now know what they need to do to get to the next level. My goal when I got here was to take this team to the Women’s College World Series and getting within two games of that this year will just make them hungrier.”
The Yellow Jackets were picked third in the ACC’s preseason coach’s poll, but went on to win both the regular season and tournament title. The Jackets finished 17-3 in conference play and won all seven league series’. Just hours after winning the program’s third ACC title, the Yellow Jackets learned they were a No. 14 national seed and would be hosting a regional for the first time in school history.
“That bus ride back from North Carolina was surreal,” said Perkins, the 2009 ACC Coach of the Year. “We were watching the selection show on the bus and when the Atlanta Regional was revealed, it was pure jubilation. I think it took a second for it to sink in that we were going to be hosting, but they soon learned that this had the makings of something special.”
Iowa, Auburn and Boston University were sent to Mewborn Field for a regional that will be remembered for the weather. The Yellow Jackets had to endure more than 13 hours of rain delays, but on the night of May 17 Jen Yee’s two home runs helped them defeat Boston University in the regional final 7-2 and earn the school’s first Super Regional berth.
Tech had to wait several hours to find out who it would be playing in the Super Regional, but one thing was certain – it would be hosting the best-of-three series at Mewborn Field. No. 3 Washington came to Atlanta and beat the Jackets twice denying Tech its first trip to Oklahoma City and the Women’s College World Series, but the experience this gave to the younger players on the team will be invaluable. Plus, there is no shame in losing to the national champions.
Behind the arm of USA Softball Player of the Year Danielle Lawrie and bats that exploded at the right time, the Huskies went on to win their first national championship. As the summer will quickly turn to fall ball, the 2010 Yellow Jackets will come back on a mission knowing they were within two wins of what every travel ball player dreams of – a trip to Oklahoma City.
Since her arrival, Perkins stressed the importance of playing the best and that certainly was the case in 2009. Tech played all four of the teams in the semifinals (Washington, Florida, Alabama, Georgia) of the World Series this year and ended up going 9-8 against the RPI top 50 this season and 23-4 vs. the top 100. The Jackets finished 12th in the final RPI themselves and had a strength of schedule which was 20th.
All three seniors this year played major roles and were rewarded with ACC championship rings. First baseman Whitney Haller leaves Tech with her name etched all over the school and ACC record books as she is in the top five for most offensive categories. Haller was a first-team Academic All-American in 2009 and became just the second player in school history to earn All-ACC honors for all four of her seasons. This year, she batted .381 with 10 doubles, 12 home runs and led the ACC with 55 RBI.
“Whitney is the true definition of what is means to be a student-athlete and was a leader for us both on and off the field,” said Perkins. “She had a tremendous four-year career at Georgia Tech and I know she will be successful in her future endeavors.”
One of the keys to Tech’s run in 2009 was the emergence of senior third baseman/pitcher Tiffany Johnson. Johnson was a career .160 hitter and did not have an extra-base hit until she broke out in 2009. Johnson hit .291 with 13 doubles, 11 home runs and 47 RBI as the Jackets led the ACC in most offensive categories this season. Johnson also went 14-3 with a 1.92 ERA and .170 opponent’s batting average in the circle, but will be remembered for her final start of 2009. Johnson threw a perfect game against Maryland in the final game of the regular season to clinch the ACC regular season title for the Jackets. The Atlanta native earned All-ACC and all-region honors for the first time in her career as well.
“For three years, we saw what Tiffany was capable of at the plate in practice,” said Perkins. “She hit some monstrous home runs and really helped the middle of our line-up this year. I can’t ever remember a hitter go from batting ninth on opening day to clean-up two weeks later. She was so valuable to us this season defensively whether it was at third base, pitcher or even shortstop when we had some injuries during the NCAA Tournament.”
Senior Blair Shimandle might go down as one of the steadiest players in Tech history, but will definitely be remembered for her spectacular catches in the outfield. Throughout the season Shimandle made several highlight reel catches in center field, but her glove was working overtime in the Super Regionals. The LaGrange native made a couple of phenomenal catches against the Huskies and one of them was No. 5 play on ESPN SportsCenter’s Top 10 that night as well as the weekend. Shimandle went a school-record 144 straight games without committing an error and batted over .300 in each of her four years at Tech. One day after seeing her streak end in the semifinals of the ACC Tournament, it was her double-play in the seventh inning against Florida State in the championship game which sealed Tech’s title.
With one out and the bases loaded, FSU slugger Kaleigh Rafter hit a pop up into centerfield which was caught by Shimandle. She loaded up and gunned Brittany Joseph down at the plate to end the game as sophomore catcher Jessica Weaver applied the tag.
“Every team needs a player like Blair,” said Perkins. “She just went about her business every day and when you look up she’s hitting .320. She can do it all for you whether it be bunting, slapping, hitting away or defense. Blair would make tough plays look routine and there was not a wall she was not afraid to crash into. She put 100 percent heart into every play and definitely left it all out there.”
While it was the offense that was the signature of this team, the Yellow Jackets would not have gotten as far as they did without sophomore transfer Kristen Adkins. Adkins transferred from the University of Florida and did not begin with her new team until January, but quickly emerged as one of the top pitchers in the ACC. The McKinney, Texas, native went 24-7 and had a miniscule 1.69 ERA. Adkins used her drop ball effectively to get ground balls and was at her best with runners on base. She held opponents to a .092 average with at least two runners on and allowed only seven home runs all year. She did it at the plate too, batting .273 with nine home runs and 40 RBI. Five of her home runs came from the fourth inning on and proved to be game-winners.
“Kristen was a huge boost for us, both pitching and batting,” said Perkins. “As we saw last year, you can never have enough pitching. I have always been a firm believer that you cannot rely on just one arm and Kristen took a lot of the load off Tiffany [Johnson] and Jessica [Coan]. She had more wins than anyone else in conference play (12) and was a huge reason why we were able to do what we did.”
Another big reason for the success of course was the return of redshirt junior second baseman Jen Yee. Yee sat out the 2008 season while with the Canadian National Team, but returned to have an even better 2009 campaign than she did as a sophomore in 2007. Despite not winning the ACC Player of the Year Award, Yee quietly went about her business and finished in the top three for just about every offensive category. The North Delta, British Columbia, native hit .415 with 64 runs scored, 18 doubles, 16 home runs and 43 RBI. Yee had a ridiculous 1.34 OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage) and committed just five errors all season. It should also be noted, however, that just three of those errors occurred at second base. She made two of them playing shortstop for the injured Kelsi Weseman during the NCAA Tournament.
Yee enjoyed a late season power surge with four home runs in Tech’s five NCAA Tournament games, including one against National Player of the Year Danielle Lawrie in the Super Regionals vs. Washington. Yee reached base 53 percent of the time and there were only five games all season she was not on at least once. Of the 119 times Yee was on via a hit, walk or hit batsman, she came around to score on 64 occasions (54 percent). In addition, she struck out only 11 times in 176 at bats.
“There aren’t enough words to describe Jen and what she means to this team,” said Perkins. “She’s one of those special players you say that you’re glad she’s on your team. I can only imagine what opposing pitchers had to do each time she batted. No matter where Yee batted in the line-up she was a tough out and even when she retired, she forced the pitcher to show us everything and brought that information back to the dugout.”
If the careers that the last few Georgia Tech players to win the ACC Freshman of the Year Award (Whitney Haller, Aileen Morales, Jessica Sallinger) went on to have are any indication, then the future looks bright for shortstop Kelsi Weseman. The Hutto, Texas, native made quite a splash in 2009 as she batted .406 with 45 runs scored, 15 doubles, nine home runs, 48 RBI and a 1.213 OPS. Although her season ended on a sour note when she suffered a broken arm in the ACC Championship game, ACC pitchers have to be fearful for seeing No. 9 in the box for three more years.
“Kelsi was a huge boost in our line-up from day one,” said Perkins. “Usually when freshman start out like she did, you see a drop-off as the season goes on once pitchers start to figure them out. That was not the case with Kelsi. She made adjustments as the year went on and we can’t wait to see her back out there next year.”
Another valuable asset was sophomore left fielder Christy Jones. The Witchita, Kan., native had just one error all year out in left field and quietly batted .322 while stealing 22 bases. Jones played some second base late in the year following Weseman’s injury which demonstrated her versatility and did a great job of getting on base.
“Christy did a nice job for us again this season,” said Perkins. “She hit over .300 and really was able to take advantage of her speed both in the outfield and on the base paths. Like last year, she made some spectacular catches in the outfield and has a deceptively strong arm.”
Offense may break records and win awards, but defense wins championships. Since taking over at Georgia Tech, Perkins has turned this team into the nest defensive one in the ACC. In 2006, the year before Perkins arrived at Tech, the Jackets committed 94 errors. After trimming that number down to 56 in each of the last two seasons and this year, committed a school record 41 errors. Tech’s .976 fielding percentage was best in the ACC and seventh-best in the nation this year.
“I have always taken a lot of pride in defense,” said Perkins. “What’s even more impressive about this year’s team was the amount of balls put in play. Our pitchers had just 348 strikeouts in 397.2 innings pitched meaning a lot of balls were put in play. We also turned a lot of double-plays (25) which is the pitcher’s best friend.”
If you’re healthy, then you better be ready to play. That’s the motto of a Sharon Perkins team and it certainly held to form this year. The Jackets received key contributions from almost everyone, up and down the roster.
Freshman Jessica Coan showed flashes of brilliance in the first couple months of the season, but put it all together come crunch time. It began with her performance against Virginia Tech in the ACC semifinals and eventually led to her starting both games of the Super Regional. With four runs already home in the first inning, Coan came in and held the Hokies to just one hit over the final 6.2 frames as the Jackets came back to win 14-4. Coan also beat Boston University twice in the NCAA regionals, including 3.1 innings of one-hit ball in the regional final. She pitched a complete-game effort in Tech’s NCAA-opener, allowing one run and striking out a career-high 11.
“Jess worked hard all season and it really showed come crunch time,” said Perkins. “She came in when we needed a lift and really carried us. For her to stick with it like that and end up starting both Super Regional games shows a lot for her character and work ethic. She is going to be a major part of this pitching staff for several years.”
Sophomore Caroline Hilton and freshman Danielle Dike were also key contributors to this team. Hilton began with a pinch-hit grand slam against Florida Atlantic in February and eventually played in 41 games. She ended the season with two home runs and 11 RBI, which included the walk-off RBI single in extra innings against North Carolina back in April which helped the Jackets take over first place in the ACC.
“Caroline is one of the players that every team needs,” said Perkins. “She is so valuable and does whatever is needed. Whether it is catching a pitcher in the bullpen, playing first base or coming in to pinch hit, Caroline does it and does it with a smile.”
Dike was part of a log jam at third base, but still found time for a couple of key hits off the bench. Playing in front of what seemed like her entire hometown of Scottsville, Va., when the Jackets were at UVA, Dike roped what turned out to be the game-winning RBI double. A couple of weeks later, she had a pinch-hit, bases-loaded double which drive in three runs and helped Tech overcome to a 4-0 deficit against Virginia Tech in the ACC semifinals. Dike also had a bases-clearing double against Western Carolina.
“Danielle had some huge hits for us,” said Perkins. “For her to get that game-winning hit in front of her entire hometown will be a moment she will never forget. Danielle has a lot of pop in that bat and I look forward to seeing her progress.”
The right field position was patrolled by a couple of freshmen this year in Jessica Sinclair and Kate Kuzma. Kuzma, who also split her time as a catcher, played in 40 games with a .212 batting average and a .363 on-base percentage. Sinclair, meanwhile, did not commit an error in 41 chances. She had a big two -run home run which helped put away BU in the regional final. Kuzma had one pick-off behind the plate, while throwing out 36 percent of would-be base stealers.
“Kate and Jessica showed us a lot of promise throughout the year,” said Perkins. “To their credit, they did not allow their offense to affect their defense and are both poised to have big years coming up. Kate battled some injuries in the last month of the season, but when healthy was a great compliment to [Jessica] Weaver behind the plate.”
A pitcher is only as good as its battery mate and the Tech staff has one of the best in sophomore Jessica Weaver. The Kingston, Ga., native started 50 games behind the plate, including every one in the final month of the season. She had a pick-off and threw out over 30 percent of would-be base stealers. At the plate, Weaver followed up her 10-home run freshman campaign with four this year and committed only three errors.
“Weaver is a rock behind the plate,” said Perkins. “It is so much easier for a pitcher to throw when they have confidence in their catcher. She had some key blocked balls this year for our pitching staff and was one of the best on the team at working a count.”
“Kelly was so valuable for us,” said Perkins. “She is such a smart base runner and come in and really put the pressure on the defense. We were also able to use her as a late-inning defensive replacement as she is great out there and has a very accurate arm.”
Sophomore Amelia Beach also appeared in 22 games before injuring herself. She scored a couple of runs and recorded her first career hit against Tennessee-Martin, but it ready to break out according to Perkins.
“Beach is another one of those kids who does whatever is asked of her with a smile,” said Perkins. “There are so many days where she looks like a world-beater in practice. She continues to work so hard and it is going to pay off.”
Bear played in 45 games, mainly as a pinch runner, but will never forget the start she had in her collegiate career. After missing the first couple of weeks with an injury, the Grayson, Ga. native had two home runs, a double and five RBI in her first five collegiate at bats. She wound up hitting .350 this season with 15 runs scored.
“Shannon was slowed a bit at the start with the injury, but showed what she is capable of with that start,” said Perkins. “Not many people can get off to a batter start to their careers than what Shannon did.”
With the NCAA imposed limit on regular season games now set at 56 and Perkins’ emphasis on RPI and strength of schedule, likely gone are the days of Tech’s mind-boggling offensive numbers. Still, a rare mix of deadly hitters, solid pitchers and strong defense has this team in position to contend for years to come.
“I really like what is happening here,” said Perkins. “This was just the tip of the iceberg and I can’t sleep at night because I’m so excited for the potential of this team. I wish the fall would just hurry up and get here.”
With so many key contributors back and a solid recruiting class coming in which features the 23rd-best player in the nation according to ESPN.COM in Hope Rush, 2010 has the potential to be even better for Perkins and the Yellow Jackets.