Feb. 9, 2012
By Jon Cooper
At the start of every year, a head coach is faced with the challenge of building that year’s team.
Finding an identity and putting the pieces together to form a cohesive unit to reach desired ends is what makes things fun.
“It’s almost like putting pieces together in a puzzle,” said softball head coach Sharon Perkins. “There are a lot of factors that go into a line-up.”
About the only thing more fun than putting the puzzle together is seeing how things come together to make goals reality.
Perkins will get her first look at how well the pieces she and assistant coaches Shaina Ervin and Aileen Morales have put together fit when the Georgia Tech takes the field of Alberta B. Farrington Stadium in Tempe, Ariz., the home of the defending NCAA Champion Arizona State Sun Devils, to take on Oregon State (first pitch is 10:30 ET) then Arizona (4:00) as part of the Kajikawa Classic.
Optimism is especially high heading into the 2012 season.
“I feel like it is the strongest team we have had in a while,” said Perkins, whose team brings a No. 23 ranking into the game. “You can go back to a few years ago when we had Jen Yee hitting, but in postseason play, it was kind of like Hope [Rush] was a freshman and she had a phenomenal freshman year and Jen Yee hitting, and there were a couple of bright points after that. But I feel like one through nine, our line-up is much stronger this year. We have a new strength and conditioning coach, so we are trying to get bigger, faster, and stronger. I also think our mental toughness is a lot better.”
These Jackets don’t have one big bat in the middle of the order — at the top in the case of the Yee years — but is is a well-rounded group.
Rush should be the big stick the middle of the order, but she’s far from the only one. All-American shortstop Kelsi Weseman, the team leader in just about every offensive category, including hits (67), runs (51), doubles (17), homers (21), RBIs (65), average (.424) and slugging percentage (.968), anchors the infield and is a quiet superstar in the mold of Yee. But, unlike in previous seasons, there is no shortage of players that will test opposing fences.
“Anybody can step up. I am amazed in practice,” she said. “With Kate [Kuzma], the girls say she is an average hitter, but she can step up and hit a bomb with the best of them. We still have Hope [Rush] (32 career homers), we have [Alysha] Rudnik (16 of her 48 hits left the yard). We have Danielle Dike, so there are a number of people that can step up, even some freshmen, Karly Fullem has hit it out in practice and some game play, while having a really good fall for us. Katie Johnsky, another freshman. So you never know.”
Perkins expects a number of freshmen to contribute right away. Among them is Johnsky, an outfield/first baseman from Perkins’ hometown, Chelsie Thomas, who appears to have won the starting job at second baseman, Fullem, who can pitch as well as play first base and pitcher Kylie Kleinschmidt.
Then there is last year’s talented freshman class, which includes powerful Rudnik, an All-ACC first-teamer, pitcher Lindsey Anderson (13-2 as a freshman), infielder Ashley Thomas, who was superb at second, and speedy Hayley Downs, who has the unenviable task of taking over for two-time All-ACC centerfielder Christy Jones.
“I’m excited about Hayley Downs in centerfield,” said Perkins. “She has done a phenomenal job for us. It is tough to lose Christy Jones. She was just a great team player and a great leader on and off the field. For Hayley to step into those shoes, I think she has done a great job.”
The underclass will have solid examples to follow in Rush, a junior, former ACC Freshman of the Year and a first-team All-ACC performer, who has come back from injury and appears ready to anchor the pitching staff, and a diverse senior class that includes Weseman, catcher/OF Kuzma, Jessica Sinclair (who is working her way back from injury), third baseman Danielle Dike, versatile Shannon Bear and first baseman Caroline Hilton.
“I really enjoy this group of seniors,” said Kuzma. “There is Caroline Hilton, who is a role model by example, and Kelsi Weseman, who is a stellar athlete. You also have a lot of other seniors on the team like Danielle Dike and Shannon Bear, who are just all-around players. They are willing to switch positions, like Danielle is going from third to first and Shannon is going from second base at times to the outfield. There is a lot of team unity amongst the senior leaders, but also we can incorporate the underclassmen a lot easier than last year.”
Perkins feels that when you put it all together, there is the feel that this group can make something special happen.
“I really see a difference in the team chemistry,” she said. “Caroline [Hilton] is definitely a strong personality. She preaches the same type of things our staff preaches, which is nice to have. I feel like there is someone in the senior class everyone can relate to. Sometimes you have quiet seniors that are better in a one-on-one setting, sometimes you have an in-your-face type of senior. I feel like we have all those things covered.”
This year’s group also has a physical toughness others haven’t having gone through the off-season conditioning program of first-year strength and conditioning coach Anna Kuzan. A nice fringe benefit has been a mental toughness that was instilled in the process of going through the program.
“We have gotten bigger. That’s just a physical awareness that you can see with us,” said Kuzma. “But we’re mentally tough as well. We do a lot of 6 a.m. (running) so we’re waking up at like 5, 5:15. Last year we didn’t really run out in the cold. This year it didn’t matter if it was below freezing. We were out there running. Obviously, you’re going to hear some gripes but it was like, ‘Hey, we could definitely play in this.”
This weekend starts the tough non-conference slate, which Kuzma feels will pay off down the road, when they meet the Washingtons, and Oregons and Tennessees, the kinds of teams that have ended Tech’s seasons short of the desired goal of the College World Series.
The senior said that whereas previous year’s teams were “shocked” when meeting such elite teams in postseason, this year’s team should be toughened and ready for anything.
That experience begins today.
“We’ve talked about it as a team,” said Kuzma. “We’re really excited that we get to play the best of the best in the beginning so that way we’re not surprised at the end of the season. We’ll definitely see a lot of good pitching, a lot of speed, and just that overall reputation of West Coast teams.”
“I think we have a team that can handle it now,” said Perkins. “If we play them early on, in postseason play we will be prepared and that is the ultimate goal.”