April 14, 2012
By Jon Cooper
Hope Rush is back on top but is different and better-prepared to stay there.
It’s been two years since Rush broke onto the scene as a hot-shot freshman, with a cannon arm (28-8, a 1.98 ERA) and a powerful bat (20 homers, 60 RBIs).
She earned 2010 ACC Freshman of the Year, first team All-ACC honors and third team All-America honors.
But Injuries hampered her as a sophomore, limiting her to 22 appearances, a 12-4 record and 3.10 ERA, a run higher than her debut season and, at the plate, her power numbers plummeted (12 homers, 38 RBIs). The season took its toll, not to mention taking away some of her swagger.
As a junior, something happened to the Stockbridge, Ga., native and Eagle Landing Christian Academy star. She grew up.
Rush has regained her status as the ace of the staff. She takes the second-place Jackets (9-3 in ACC play) into this weekend’s showdown at first-place Florida State (10-2) with a 20-10 record and a 2.11 ERA. She also has fully embraced being the leader and role model for a staff that, after her — due to an injury to sophomore Lindsey Anderson — consists of freshmen Kylie Kleinschmidt and, occasionally, Karly Fullem.
“She threw a lot of really important games at the beginning of the year against some tough competition and threw excellent,” said head coach Sharon Perkins. “I think she’s throwing more innings than we would like her to throw, but that’s just kind of part of the situation that we’re in with another pitcher being out. So she has really carried the load of two pitchers.
“Hope’s been a trooper. She’s really matured a lot, even just from last year,” Perkins added. “For her to be a junior and having had a lot of success in the past, she can just kind of step in and take over the role. It’s been nice for the freshmen to be able to see her. You can just tell when Hope has her game face on and she’s on. You can just see it in her eyes. It’s good for them to see that side.”
Rush has been on the right side of things again, beginning the weekend as the ACC leader in innings pitched (185 2/3), ranking second in wins (20), appearances (32) and seventh in ERA (2.19) and strikeouts (121). Rush also has her stroke back, ranking in the top 10 in slugging (.530, ninth), on-base percentage (.467, fifth), RBIs (28, seventh in the league and tied for the team lead with Alysha Rudnik), home runs (seven, fourth, and tied for second with Rudnik, behind Kelsi Weseman’s nine), total bases (62, seventh), and walks (29, third, one ahead of Weseman),
While her stature as one of the league’s top players may be where it was two years ago, Rush is not.
“I’ve wanted to work on the mental part of the game, how to overcome situations, and different situations that in the past I might have let get in my head,” she said. “I think over the years of pitching I’ve gotten better at handling those.”
“Hope is just a different person, a different pitcher,” said pitching coach Shaina Ervin. “Her maturity has grown dramatically and I think that’s going to help her down the stretch. Fundamentally and pitching-wise, I think she’s progressing and she’s going to peak at the right time.
“Just her mindset and her mentality is something that has helped take this team further than what we were able to accomplish last year,” Ervin continued. “I feel like she has the right mindset and she’s grown a great deal as a pitcher. I can’t compare freshman to junior year because I wasn’t there, but I know for a fact from last year to this year that she’s grown a lot, she’s matured a lot. She’s really stepped up in big situations that the Hope of last year wouldn’t have.”
Rush believes that the team also has gotten mentally stronger.
“We’ve always had the talent, but I think we’re becoming game-smart and our mental part of the game is getting so much better,” she said. “The question was could we beat these really good teams? I think that’s the mental part of the game that we’ve struggled on. But I think we’re getting mentally prepared for games better. We’re getting so much better mentally. I think we’re going to do really well at the end of the season.”
Rush has been the horse that pulled the team through its rugged non-conference slate, going toe-to-toe with some of the nation’s best, like Oklahoma’s Keilani Ricketts, who she outdueled in a scintillating 1-0 pitcher’s duel back on Feb. 17, and Tennessee’s Ellen Renfroe. She has not only not backed down, but gotten her back up, living for the opportunity to go ace vs. ace.
“I love facing the SEC and Georgia, Oklahoma, Arizona, the really good teams,” she said. “Seeing them early on, so we don’t have to wait until Regionals or Supers to see them. Not just me but the team overall, it gives us an advantage to see these really good teams early on.”
That confidence is rubbing off on the youngsters.
“She has really good mound presence. She’s very intimidating, and very focused. That’s the biggest thing that a pitcher needs that you kind of grow into with experience,” said Fullem. “It’s really cool to watch her. She’s a great leader and helps me and Kylie when we need it. It’s been really good having an upperclassmen here to take care of us like that.”
“I knew Hope. We played each other in high school,” said Kleinschmidt. “She’s totally different than I thought she was, because we were rivals, but she gives me advice, we can joke around in the bullpen. I love Hope to death.”
With three weeks to go in the season, the Yellow Jackets have won 11 straight, and appear ready to make their move back to the top of the ACC. Rush feels the team is playing its best ball of the season, which is a good thing, as they play the first-place Seminoles, followed by a visit to North Carolina, which features perhaps the only pitcher hotter than Rush in sophomore Lori Spingola (Spingola is an Atlanta native, whose brother, Daniel, plays baseball for Danny Hall’s Yellow Jackets).
Rush isn’t worried about who’s on the schedule, not after who they’ve already faced and faced down.
“When you’ve seen really good pitchers, like the Ricketts, the [Arizona’s Kenzie] Fowler’s, seeing them early on then going into what we see in our conference,” she said. “We have no doubt in our minds. If we can hit those really good pitchers then we can hit these really good pitchers. I think facing those really good pitchers and really good teams early on will ultimately be an advantage for us.”