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Kuz Control

March 26, 2010

by Jon Cooper, Associate Editor

ATLANTA — There’s no way to avoid being a freshman and going through all the “learning experiences” that come with the first time around.

But you’re only a freshman once and presumably older and wiser when that second time comes around.

Sophomore Kate Kuzma certainly is all the above and it’s showing.

The Sharpsburg, Ga., native, who starred at Northgate High School,passed her freshman total for home runs and runs in half the time as a sophomore (21 games vs. 40 as a frosh) while needing a little more than half the at-bats. To date, she’s also slugging nearly 120 points higher than last season and, with 22 regular-season games and the ACC and NCAA Tournaments remaining, seems a cinch to set highs in just about every offensive category.

Not that she’s paying any attention to numbers.

“I found that whenever I try to set number goals that I kind of freak out a little bit more,” she said. “In the past, whenever I have been successful I haven’t looked at my average, or my RBI or my home runs. So I try not to look at numbers at all. In a way you can tell how great a hitter is by average but I would be more scared to go up against a power hitter who is going to put the ball in play all the time, put it in hard as opposed to one like a slapper that gets on base by just bunting the ball.”

Such talk smacks of older and wiser. Then there’s more mature and healthier.

“It’s confidence. Last year, coming in as a freshman you’re kind of scared, not knowing what to expect, being on the bottom of the food chain,” said Kuzma. “It’s also a little bit physical for me too because I was hurt last year and I didn’t really get my full season as a freshman. But I was trying to overcome that lack of confidence almost just by being. It didn’t matter if you didn’t play all the time you wanted to last year; you’re still a good softball player and you’re here for a reason.”

She’s doing her best to pass on that message.

“I tried to tell a lot of our freshmen this year is that you guys are softball players,” she said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re only a freshman. You’ve been playing for a good 10 years and you guys know how to play. That’s how I try to go into games.”

She considers exuding that confidence behind the plate part of her job description as a catcher,part-and-parcel of working with the team’s pitchers.

“The most important part of being a catcher is to help your pitcher out,” she said. “You have to know when your pitcher is struggling, you have to know when your pitcher is on and you have to know how to pick her up. If she’s struggling you have to go out and make her laugh, make her forget that she’s struggling.”

That requires knowing the make-up of the pitchers. Good thing she’s a management major (perhaps she could add a second major in psychology). Coach Sharon Perkins is quite pleased with the Kuzma’s management skills.

“She’s fun to pitch to,” said Perkins. “The pitchers really like pitching to her, they’re really comfortable, she has a really great glove. She can get some extra strikes called because she has such a good glove back there. She’s really quick. She just really works well with every pitcher.”

No argument from her battery mates.

“She was great last year. She’s great again this year,” said junior Kristen Adkins, who pitched her first season on The Flats last season after transferring from Florida. “I think it really helps now that she has caught me for an entire year. She knows what it’s like, where my ball is going to go, what my tendencies are, what to tell me to kind of get me back in sync when I’m on the mound. She was just tremendous last year.”

“We have great chemistry together and it definitely helps that she’s caught me before,” said freshman and two-time ACC Pitcher of the Week Hope Rush, who pitched to Kuzma during a summer travel league and threw her first career no-hitter to her on March 21 in a 5-0 win in Chapel Hill. “We communicate very well together. I feel real comfortable with Kate behind the plate. She is not afraid to tell me if I’m not hitting my spots and how the ball is moving which I respect her for.”

About the only problem Perkins has with playing Kuzma behind the plate every game is that she’s then unable to play her in left field (a decision eased some by the play of junior catcher Jessica Weaver), where she’s also excelled — the team won its first 11 games she played out there (they are currently 11-2). They’re 10-3 with her behind the plate.

“She can play a couple of positions,” said Perkins. “It’s kind of tough because I think she’s a great catcher so to kind of put her in the outfield to keep her bat is a kind of issue that we’re working with here. But she’s really fast out there, she has a great arm so it’s kind of hard to decide where we need her the most to keep her bat in the lineup.”

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