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Empowerment

April 8, 2011

By Jon Cooper
Sting Daily
As a general rule, athletes don’t enjoy running — track athletes notwithstanding — and will go about avoiding it any way they can.

The Georgia Tech softball team’s preferred method for avoiding the sprint is to simply trot, a la the home run trot.

Heading into this weekend’s series at Virginia Tech (28-9, 6-3), the No. 25/23 Yellow Jackets (32-6, 6-0) have put the Jack in Jackets at a pace that has virtually lapped the entire ACC.

They have blasted 68 as a team, only one homer fewer than the combined total of the next TWO teams in the conference, Boston College (36) and North Carolina (33). Their 68 homers and 1.84 homers per game are second in the nation, behind only Alabama (72 and 1.85), while Tech’s .606 slugging percentage is fourth in the nation behind only Alabama (.628), Washington (.621) and Florida (.609).

Power has become the norm for Georgia Tech this season, as the team has picked up where it left off last season, when it hit a team-record 118 homers.

But there is a difference. It seems like the entire team is getting involved.

“I think everybody realizes there’s no Jen Yee,” said head coach Sharon Perkins. “Last year, everybody would sit back and wait for Yee to get it done. We knew we had her and it was a confidence thing to just have her, but I think we realized during the fall and probably the first couple of weeks that Yee’s not here and she’s not going to come in and save us. So different people have had to step up in different situations. I think they have confidence in that now. It doesn’t matter who’s up in whatever situation. They seem to be able to get it done.”

Last season, Yee led the team with 29 homers. Hope Rush was next at 20, then Kristine Priebe at 15, and Kelsi Weseman at 12. But after that, no one reached double-digits.

In 2011, the Jackets already have five players with double-figure home runs (Rush, who’s hit an ACC-leading 12, Weseman and freshman Alysha Rudnik, 11, Priebe and Jessica Sinclair, 10), and Shannon Bear is knocking on the door with nine.

It’s not really a surprise to the Yellow Jackets that they’ve dialed 8 so regularly.

“We all knew that everybody on the team had the power,” said Priebe. “We all knew that everybody combined, we could pull out these kinds of numbers. We obviously miss Jen Yee, but we have so many other players that are contributing, and together we’re just making a big monster out of it.”

It’s a monster that is leading the ACC with a .606 slugging percentage, 138 points higher than the nearest ACC team, and has helped account for 138 more total bases than the next nearest team, Virginia Tech.

While Tech has flexed its muscles, they’re doing it in a more conventional way, with table-setters getting on for the heart of the order.

“We had to go out and hit,” said Rush. “Last year, we were a good hitting team, and this year we are an even better team because we’re stacked one through nine.”

This year, teams have had to deal with speedy lead-off hitter Christy Jones, followed by second-place hitter Kate Kuzma, who continues to take unselfishness to a new level.

The speedy Jones has slapped her way to a .327 average and a .409 on-base percentage. Once she gets on, she’s a threat to steal, leading the ACC with 26 stolen bases. If she doesn’t steal, Kuzma continues to excel in moving runners along, as she leads the ACC with 10 sacrifice bunts — Tech’s 25 sacrifices lead the league.

From there, the C in the Jackets’ ABC approach has stood for crush. Tech boasts five of the top six sluggers in the ACC, led by Weseman. Rush, Bear, Priebe, and Rudnik rank third through sixth. It’s a similar story in homers, as Rush leads the conference, followed by Weseman and Rudnik, tied for second, then Sinclair and Priebe, tied for fifth. Bear is tied for seventh.

The injection of speed comes, ironically, from Yee’s replacement at second, as Ashley Thomas has 15 stolen bases, fifth in the ACC. She’s been thrown out attempting to steal one time.

The conventional attack has put more pressure on opposing pitchers.

“Speed doesn’t have a bad day, and with us having Christy Jones and Ashley Thomas and all of our slappers getting on, and Kate Kuzma and all of them getting on,” said Rush. “It helps us tremendously because your goal as a team is to score first. To have that lead-off runner on, and Christy has done a great job at setting the table for us to do our job. She’s doing her job and it’s up to us to do our job as well.”

“You always want to get the first batter of the inning out,” added pitcher Kristen Adkins. “When you have to work against someone so speedy as Christy or Ashley [Thomas], or Hayley [Downs], it’s really tough because that puts a lot of pressure not only on the pitcher to make a good pitch, but on the defense to field the ball cleanly and to make a perfect throw to get them out.”

The Jackets’ offensive machine leads the ACC in hits as well as runs, on-base percentage, runs and total bases.

However, if there is a team that can score with the Jackets, it’s the Hokies, who have scored only two fewer runs (232-230). They also are second to Tech in batting (although nearly 50 points lower), hits (25 fewer than Tech), and OBP (down 21 points).

Pitching-wise, they’re also comparable in ERA (third in the ACC, although nearly a run behind Tech), Opposing batting average (third at .217, 20 points higher than Georgia Tech’s second-place .197). They’ve surrendered 23 homers on the season (tied for fourth in the conference).

But most important, they are only three wins behind the Jackets, who are 15-11 all-time in the series and are winners of four straight in the series.

That proximity should make for a fun series this weekend at Softball Park, where the Jackets are 4-4 all-time and the Hokies are 7-0 this season.

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