Feb. 2, 2006
The 24th-ranked Georgia Tech softball team returns seven starters and two pitchers from last year’s 51-14 squad. The Yellow Jackets captured their first ever Atlantic Coast Conference regular season championship and won their second tournament crown in four seasons. This year, the Jackets were picked to finish second in the 2006 Preseason ACC Softball Poll.
“Even though we aren’t the preseason favorite, we know we have a bull’s-eye on our chests after winning the ACC last year,” said ACC Coach of the Year Ehren Earleywine. “Winning the conference and getting to the top was difficult, but it’s going to be even tougher to stay on top. It’s not the pressure that concerns me, this group thrives under pressure. My only concern is complacency. If they rest on their laurels and stare at their 2005 ring every night before they go to bed, we’ll be lucky to finish in the top five. However, if they’ll compete with the same hunger that they did last year in their quest for the title, we’ll be in a position to win it again.”
For just the second time in program history, the Jackets enter a season with a national ranking, earning a No. 23 ranking in 2005. This season, Tech is No. 24 in the ESPN.com/USA Softball Collegiate Preseason Top 25 Poll and No. 25 in the USA Today/NFCA Preseason Top 25 Poll. However, Tech does not put much behind that.
“It’s always an honor to be one of the top 25 teams in the country, but we aren’t satisfied with hovering there,” said Earleywine. “Our mind set is to be the best and we don’t think any other way. When the smoke clears, I don’t know exactly how we will finish, but I’ll just say that we are optimistic at this point and are looking forward to get the season underway.”
In 2005, the Yellow Jackets led the nation with 159 stolen bases and shattered the school record of 89. Tech returns ACC leading base stealer Aileen Morales, who finished third in the nation with 44, and Caitlin Lever who swiped 31 bases and finished 26th in the nation.
“My philosophy will never change and that is to be reckless on offense,” said Earleywine. “We do return all of our speed from last year and have added another good runner to the mix with Blair Shimandle. “The only deterrents to the stolen bases being as high again might be that we have more power than last year and I don’t want to run us out of innings and take the bat out of our hands. “Also, our opponents will want to try to shut that part of our offense down and will make every effort to do so. “Having said that, my philosophy will remain very aggressive, win, lose, or draw.”
To prepare the Jackets for another title run in the ACC, Tech will face its toughest schedule ever. According to the preseason rankings, the Jackets will face five teams in the top 11, including top-ranked Michigan (Feb. 25), No. 4 Texas (March 22), No. 8/6 Alabama (Feb. 24), No. 10/11 Baylor (March 21) and No. 11/10 Georgia (March 29). The Jackets will open the regular season at home against No. 18/23 Missouri, Feb. 10-11, in a three-game series.
“It’s the toughest since I’ve been here without question,” said Earleywine. “There are very few breaks at all in this schedule. “Sometimes I look at it and wonder what I was thinking, but the players love it and I wouldn’t have it any other way. “This team loves a challenge. They want to play the best and beat the best. I respect them for that. Worst case scenario, we’ll lose a few games early on and it will help us identify where we need to be and what we need to work on down the stretch to get to the level we want to be at. Best case scenario, we win a few of those big match-ups and put ourselves in a situation to be among the nation’s elite.”
The only question mark for the Yellow Jackets heading into the 2006 season is pitching. With the departure of the ACC Pitcher of the Year and all-time strikeout leader Jessica Sallinger, the Jackets have a big void to fill. To combat that, Tech returns junior left-handed pitcher Sarah Wood, who finished 15-4 last season, and sophomore right-handed hurler Whitney Humphreys, who went 8-1. Tech also adds freshmen Whitney Haller and Lacey Richardson.
“I think it’s unfair to make any predictions or comparisons about our pitching yet,” said Earleywine. “Our four pitchers haven’t really been tested other than in our intrasquad scrimmages. Sarah Wood and Whitney Humphreys have only seen limited action in their careers simply because our ace in the past threw most of our `big’ games. They are both different pitchers now anyway, and are happy to finally have the ball in their hand.
“Our two freshmen pitchers are improving daily and they have the advantage of unfamiliarity when it comes to opposing hitters. As good as our ace was in the past, everyone new what she was going to throw and had seen her many times before. Many hitters will see our pitchers this year for the first time ever and we’ll use all four of them in various ways to enhance that effect.
“Regardless of how they do early on, our goal for our staff is to gain experience and improve each time out so they’re clicking on all cylinders down the stretch. If they will be patient and not let `bad days’ get them down, learn from each outing, and continue to improve like they have been, they’re going to keep us in games and give us a chance to win.”
The Rambling Wreck have appeared in four consecutive NCAA Tournaments and won two of the last four ACC Tournament titles. The Jackets have also posted a winning record in NCAA postseason play, carrying a .529 (9-8) winning percentage over the last four seasons. Now, Tech wants to take that next step.
“Our goals remain the same,” said Earleywine. “We want to make a College World Series and continue winning the ACC. “The players will tell you though, we rarely talk about that kind of thing. Our focus is always on how we can get better. Finding out what our weaknesses are and eliminating them. “Right now, we have a long way to go to get to where we want to be, but our practices have been very productive so far.”
Some of the offensive firepower returning to Tech are seniors Amy Hosier and Christine Sheridan. Hosier garnered third team Easton All-America honors, All-ACC first team and ACC All-Tournament Team accolades last season after leading Tech with 39 runs batted in. Hosier, an outfielder from Lakewood, Colo., hit a career best .356 in ’05.
Sheridan, a shortstop from Pasadena, Md., led the ACC with a .380 batting average and earned Tech’s Best Defensive Team Award. She drove in 31 runs for the Jackets and led the league with a .485 on base percentage.
“Arguably the two best hitters in the ACC and in my opinion, two of the best defenders in the conference as well,” said Earleywine. “Their in a great situation too, in that there is little or no pressure for either of them to carry us offensively since we have so much depth there. They can just kind of get lost in this lineup and quietly produce like they always have.”
ACC Co-Freshman of the Year Morales and All-ACC first team selection Lever also return to the lineup for Tech. Morales, a second baseman from Columbus, Ga., hit .297 in the leadoff spot for the Jackets and set a new single-season school record in stolen bases.
Lever, a junior outfielder from Amherst, N.Y., hit .324, with 27 RBIs and scored 33 times for the Rambling Wreck.
“Aileen and Caitlin are key returning players as well and have only improved since last season,” said Earleywine. “Aileen is just more comfortable overall and rightfully so. Last year she was technically still a senior in high school and that transition couldn’t be easy. Regardless, she still put up great numbers and made a name for herself in a hurry. She is the epitome of what I look for in a player, confident, competitive, and talented.
“Caitlin’s offense may surprise some people this year. She has more power than before and that makes playing infield against her a little scarier.
“There are a lot of other players in our lineup this year that I feel are going to have big years as well, I just wish I could mention them all. If some of them continue like they have this fall and in spring practice your going to see there names a lot this season.”
“Overall, this year has been full of adversity. We’ve lost four players since the fall and three of them were probable starters. We no longer have the `ace’ pitcher that we’ve had in the past and we continually get asked, `what are you going to do now?’ This is definitely a crossroad for this program and we’ll see how we respond on Feb. 10 against 18th-ranked Missouri.”