May 7, 2012
By Jon Cooper
From 2009 through 2011, Georgia Tech walked into the ACC Tournament with a swagger, daring other teams take their best shot.
In last year’s Tournament, Virginia did, and stunned the Yellow Jackets, 6-0, on Mewborn Field, no less.
The Yellow Jackets don’t have the same air of invincibility heading into the 2012 ACCs, being held this weekend at Anderson Softball Stadium, in Chapel Hill, N.C., but the third seed believes it has something that may make it as dangerous as those 2009 and ’10 champions.
They have motivation.
“For me it’s exciting. Let’s go in there and knock everybody else off,” said Head Coach Sharon Perkins, whose squad finished 33-21, 12-8 in ACC play. “I feel like we have something to prove and we do better when we have that approach going into games. When we go into games and we have to fight and we have to scrap and we have to figure out a way to win then we have a better approach and our mentality is better overall.”
The Jackets will have plenty of incentive heading into their Tournament opener, on Thursday at noon, as they’ll be facing the sixth-seeded Cavaliers and their recent nemesis, Melanie Mitchell.
Mitchell authored the shutout in last year’s Tournament, and this year, recorded a pair of 3-1 triumphs as part of a sweep of Tech in its ACC-opening series at The Mew. She has a 0.66 ERA (two earned runs in 21 innings) over her last three appearances against Tech, coincidentally all at Mewborn Field.
The Jackets, who had the week off, during which they worked on hitting among other things, are determined to change things this time around against Mitchell, who was in the top five in the ACC in ERA (1.39, second), opponents’ batting average (.198, fifth), innings pitched, (206.2, fifth), strikeouts (273, third), fewest walks allowed (25, first), and was seventh in wins (18). Of course, she also was in the top ten in losses (12), runs allowed (65, sixth), earned runs allowed (41, tied for fifth), wild pitches (11, sixth), hit batters (15, tied for ninth), and walks (25).
“We need to do a better job of not letting her control the tempo of the game,” said shortstop Kelsi Weseman, who tied for the ACC lead with 12 homers and led the team with a .381 batting average, .582 on-base percentage and a .773 slugging percentage. “When we played them this season we didn’t really hit our pitch. We hit the pitch that she wanted us to hit, so we weren’t successful. We need to try to stick to our plan and play our game and hopefully we’ll be more successful this time around.
“We need to make sure that we’re swinging at strikes earlier in the count so that we don’t have to chase the pitches that she’s throwing further off the plate later,” Weseman added. “We call it being ‘selectively aggressive.’ Don’t watch strikes but don’t chase anything crazy, either.”
This season, Mitchell has tied up the Jackets, as only freshman right fielder Katie Johnsky has hits in both games against the UVA junior and has three hits in five trips to the plate against her (a .600 average). The rest of the team has five hits in 39 at-bats (a .128 average). Ashley Thomas has two hits off Mitchell, with Kate Kuzma, Alysha Rudnik and Hayley Downs having the others.
“I really didn’t notice,” said Johnsky of her success. “Recently, I’ve been trying to stay relaxed, watch the ball out of the pitcher’s hand and hit it.”
Johnsky is a fan of a more aggressive approach.
“Personally, when I’m more aggressive I’m more successful,” she said. “Coach is always telling me to keep swinging, and don’t always watch the first strike go by. Take a hack at the first pitch if it’s a strike.”
Perkins has encouraged Tech hitters to become the aggressors at the plate.
“Our approach is let’s get up there and let’s take some big hacks,” said Tech’s Head Coach. “Let’s swing the bat and let’s control our own destiny.”
Until last year’s ACCs, that approach had Tech in firm control of Mitchell, as in her first two seasons, the UVA pitcher made five appearances against Tech, resulting in an 0-5 record and an ERA of 9.68 (30 earned runs in 21 2/3 innings) on 35 hits.
Tech will be relying on its own ace, Hope Rush, also among the top pitchers in the ACC in ERA (2.05, sixth), opposing BA (.226, eighth), innings (219.0, fourth), strikeouts (134, seventh), and wins (22).
“Hope’s been solid, really, all year,” said Perkins. “I fully expect her to come out and be a gamer. The same gamer that she’s been in all of our big games to this point. She’ll be ready.”
Behind Rush and an improved offense, Tech is ready to return to those good old days of dominating Virginia and Mitchell.
“[Beating Virginia] definitely means a lot. They’ve beaten us the last four times,” said Weseman. “I know, I personally don’t like to lose and nobody else on this team does, either. So we have to show them that we can beat them, finally.
“We’re very excited to play them,” she added, breaking into a smile that masked the intensity that appeared to be bubbling up inside. “We definitely owe them one. We need to play how we know we can play.”
Perhaps no one on Tech will be as motivated as recently graduated Danielle Dike, Tech’s big bat off the bench. A victory on Thursday would make returning home a lot easier for the Scottsville, Va., native.
“I want to beat them so badly,” she said. “I live there so whenever I finally do go back home those girls are going to be there,” she said. “Quite honestly, I don’t want to talk to them if they beat us again. I would rather go up to them and be like, ‘How ’bout the ACCs?’ There’s a lot of incentive there.”
While earning bragging rights in her home state is nice, Dike doesn’t want to stop there. She’d like to make it three crowns in four years.
“It actually is motivating us because we know that people are thinking, ‘They’re not going to be as good this year,'” she said. “It’s motivating to think they’re not going to take us seriously so we’re going to go in and just kick butt. That’s our mindset. We’re going to go in and be who we are.”
Weseman believes that some teams may be lulled into a false sense of security by focusing on Tech’s conference record and 2-5 finish in ACC games rather than its 14-5 overall finish to the season. Those five losses came by a total of eight runs and included a pair of one-run losses at second-seeded Florida State and a one-run and two-run loss at North Carolina, the Tournament’s top seed.
“I definitely think it gives us some extra incentive to prove that we might not have had the best regular season but that we still are one of the top teams in the ACC,” she said. “I also think it gives us an advantage because maybe we didn’t play as well against them so they don’t know our full potential. Every game, at least in the ACC, we’ve had the opportunity to win. We just didn’t make the plays when we needed to. Hopefully we’ll be able to do that this weekend.”