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From Toys 'R' Us to Try to Catch Us

Sept. 11, 2009

by Matt Winkeljohn, Managing Editor

ATLANTA — Sharon Perkins missed Georgia Tech’s ACC opener Thursday night in Bobby Dodd Stadium, passing it up so that she might play once again herself.

Well, maybe not play, but Tech’s fourth-year softball coach will have plenty of opportunities to reminisce about her playing days when Nicholls State (La.) on Saturday throws open the doors to its Athletics Hall of Fame and invites Perkins in — to stay forever.

All of this might seem a peculiar outcome for someone who once upon a time — from 1992-’95 to be exact — really wanted little more than to play softball by day, and grind toward a biology by day and night.

You don’t study biology and minor in chemistry if your career goal is to be called, “Coach.”

Yet on Saturday, in Thibodoux, La., as husband Cris, daughter Katie and son Nicholas beam in the crowd, Perkins and four others will be honored on the field before the Colonels play their home opener against Dusquesne. The family left Atlanta Thursday.

“I thought I was going to be a physical therapist,” she said. “I was a student assistant my fifth year [once her playing days were over]. I enjoyed it, but I never, ever wanted to be a coach. It never crossed my mind.”

Matter of fact, after graduating in ’96, Perkins lit out of Louisiana without a career plan.

“I kind of got burned out, got married, and just did odd-ball things for a couple years,” she recalled. “I worked for the National Fast-pitch Coaches Association (then in Columbia, Mo.). I worked at Toys `R’ Us, worked a couple jobs where I didn’t have to think. I’d been studying hard for five years and I was kind of over it.”

Who could have predicted that Perkins would go 132-62 in her first three seasons as a head coach, let alone lead the Yellow Jackets to a school-record 54 wins in 2007?

Not Perkins, not then. But the uprooted Sarasota, Fla. native knew one thing for sure after a couple winters in Missouri: “I’m from Florida, and I didn’t like the snow.”

So when she and her husband learned that Southern Mississippi was starting a softball program from scratch through their connections at the NFCA, and that Lu Harris-Champer — whom Perkins worked under as a student assistant at Nicholls St. in ’95-’96 — wanted to get out of pro coaching and back into the college ranks, ideas skittered across brainpans.

“Cris asked Lu if she was interested. She wanted to get back into the college atmosphere…and wanted to know if I’d be her assistant. I was like, ‘Heck yeah, get me out of the snow; I’ll move anywhere south, I don’t care what I’m doing.’ “

A decision well made.

In Perkins, who as Sharon Brander worked nimbly enough at shortstop at Nicholls State to earn four letters, honorable mention All-Southland Conference as a junior and first team as a senior, not to mention three conference titles, passion has long burned brightly. She also earned All-Academic honors, and in ’95 won Entergy Corporation’s Louisiana Female Athlete of the Year, recognizing excellence in athletics and the classroom.

Perkins and Harris-Champer tag-teamed to win the NFCA regional coaching award again in ’03, by now at Georgia.

Six years and two SEC titles with the Bulldogs was enough, not that Perkins has an issue with the folks in Athens. When Ehren Earlywhine left Tech in ’06, new athletics director Dan Radakovich made his first coaching hire.

You might say he hit a home run.

All Perkins has done is lead the Jackets to three straight NCAA tournaments, to ACC regular-season and tournament titles in ’09, and the school’s first-ever berth in a Super Regional last spring. “We work every day to try and win a national championship,” she said. “I think we took great strides toward that last year.”

It started at Nicholls State.

“It was a great place to become independent. I was 12 hours from home,” Perkins said. “The people there were just great. The families of my roommates, and my teammates from down there, they would take you in. You’d cook out on weekends, have crawfish boils. You didn’t have to worry about safety.”

Tech fans probably need not worry about their softball program. Recruiting has ticked upward, and the team has a new on-campus facility — Shirley Clements Mewborn Field — that last spring hosted NCAA action. When Tech plays at home, crowds have grown to rival Perkins’ passion.

“It’s been huge,” she said. “We have football players who come out and paint up for games. It’s funny, the first time I’ve ever had my name painted on someone’s back.”

Saturday, her name will be etched in Stone at Nicholls State. Pretty big deal.

“Definitely surprising,” Perkins said humbly. “That’s not something you think about when you’re there. I think back, and all I wanted to do was play and work on my biology degree.”

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