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Raising the Bar

June 16, 2011

By Seth Gerard
Sting Daily

When Sharon Perkins arrived in Atlanta, many people didn’t even know where the Georgia Tech Softball team played its home games (Glenn Field was located off campus just off 14th street in case you were wondering). Flash forward five years and the Yellow Jackets have dominated the Atlantic Coast Conference and been a mainstay in the top 15 nationally.

Perkins has led the Jackets to three straight ACC regular season titles and is the first coach in league history to be named Coach of the Year three straight times in softball. Since moving into the cozy Mewborn Field, Tech has hosted two NCAA regionals, a Super Regional and the 2011 ACC Championship. The Jackets have been on ESPN several times, ranked in the top 25 for all but three weeks the last three years and been a national seed for the first time in school history.

“Winning the ACC is always our first goal,” said Perkins. “We aren’t just content winning the conference though. When we first get together and set goals as a team, we do it with the intent of following through and not just saying it because that’s what we think we need to do. If we say we want to go to the World Series, then we won’t be satisfied with anything less.”

In 2009, Tech raised the bar by earning a national seed (No. 14) for the first time in program history and went on to the school’s first Super Regional. When it became clear that third-seeded Washington could not host and the Jackets were two home wins away from a trip to the Women’s College World Series in Oklahoma City, it was evident among those around the program that expectations had changed. Despite losing two games to the Huskies, who went on to win the National Championship, you could sense a change among the players. Instead of seeing “those teams” on TV, they realized they were one of those teams.

“We thought we were going to win those games,” said Perkins. “It wasn’t a case of we were just happy to be there. It was a chance to show off our new facility and program to the nation and let them know that we were in it for the long haul.”

Following the run to the Super Regionals, 2010 looked like it was going to be the year Tech made it to the big stage in Oklahoma City. In the second game of the season, the Jackets knocked off No. 2 Florida behind a shutout from freshman pitcher Hope Rush in her first collegiate start. Tech spent much of the year ranked in the top 10 and earned a No. 8 national seed in the NCAA Tournament. Selected as one of just two regionals on the ESPN family of networks the Jackets knew they were just a couple of home wins away again from a trip to Oklahoma. With national player of the year finalist Jen Yee at the top of the order and All-American pitcher Hope Rush in the circle expectations were high, but it was the Pac-10 again that ended the Jackets’ season. Oregon came in and defeated the Yellow Jackets twice to end the 2010 season on a sour note. After getting run-ruled in the championship bracket game, Tech needed to come back and beat the Ducks twice on the final day of the regional. The Jackets trailed for much of the game but came back to tie the score in the seventh inning and had the bases loaded and one out needing just one run to force the “if necessary” game. Oregon was able to get out of the jam and went on to win in the eighth inning to advance to the Super Regionals.

“It was definitely disappointing how it ended,” said Perkins. “We needed just one run in the seventh inning and had the right people up but just couldn’t come through with a clutch hit. It was tough to see it end like that but sometimes the sour taste it leaves makes the players even hungrier next season.”

Now we are in 2011. Coach Perkins heard the same question for months: “How are you going to replace Jen Yee?”

“I think I heard that question about a thousand times,” Perkins said while chuckling. “You can’t replace a player like Jen Yee with one individual. It has to be a team effort. Our team this season was deeper one through nine and we had three very good pitchers on staff. Unfortunately, the injuries down the stretch were just too much to overcome.”

We’ll get to the injuries in a second but those around the program would agree with Perkins’ assessment that this team was indeed deeper. For much of the season, EVERY starter was hitting over .300. In fact, 12 players who saw significant playing time were hitting better than .300 and six different players hit double-figure home runs. The Jackets ranked in the top five in the nation in home runs, slugging percentage and scoring and were in the top 15 for several others.

The Jackets appeared to be headed for a national seed and a regional at Mewborn Field for the third straight season but after getting upset by eighth-seeded Virginia on its home field in the first round of the ACC Tournament, the Jackets knew it was time to pack their suitcases. Despite having a RPI in the teens, Tech was sent to Knoxville, Tenn. as a three seed. In the first round, the Jackets battled Oklahoma State for seven full innings before losing on a walk-off bloop single. The Cowgirls beat the host Lady Volunteers twice and went on to play in the Women’s College World Series. Tech went 1-2 at the regional and by the end of its final game, a 7-0 loss to Tennessee, a quick scan of the field would tell you the story. Third baseman Danielle Dike was in left field, first baseman/designated player Caitlin Jordan was in right field and Kelly Delashmit, primarily a pinch runner, was in center field.

“If you told me that would have been our outfield in a NCAA Tournament game against a team like Tennessee I would have said you were crazy,” said Perkins. “Every team has their share of injuries. Your true character comes out with how you respond to them. All season I was so proud of how we adapted. If someone went down, then someone new came off the bench and stepped up”

During the course of the season, several key players spent some time in the training room. Rush battled an injury for most of the year that affected her pitching. Junior Shannon Bear had a break-out season and hit .400 with nine home runs in just a few weeks of March but injured her hand in the April 13 game against Georgia and was never the same after that. In the same game against Georgia, first baseman Kristine Priebe hurt her back, but Jordan stepped in and proceeded to carry the team on her back for much of the remainder of the regular season. She reached base safely in her first eight plate appearances (seven hits) and hit seven home runs in the final few weeks of the regular season.

By the end of the year, the injuries were just too much to overcome. For the second straight season, Jessica Sinclair tore her ACL in practice right before the ACC Tournament. Sinclair was in the middle of a career year batting over .300 with 12 home runs but was forced to have surgery and shut it down early. She was replaced by Jordan in right field and the Stockbridge, Ga., native performed admirably out there despite having never played in the outfield. Tech was then dealt another major late season blow. Two nights before leaving for Knoxville, senior center fielder Christy Jones broke her hand diving for a ball in practice and would be relegated to pinch running duties only as she played with pain and put off needed surgery until the season was over. Jones was the heart and soul of the team and had started in every game since arriving on campus from Wichita, Kansas. Freshman Hayley Downs, who was playing all over the outfield this season, replaced Jones in center until she had to leave the Tennessee game after breaking a finger.

“We don’t use injuries as an excuse,” said Perkins. “You have to think of an injury as an opportunity for someone else to step up. That happened all season so no I don’t think this year was a disappointment. We learned a lot about ourselves and will take that into next season.”

Tech lost a lot to graduation this year, including three starters, but still has plenty returning including All-American shortstop Kelsi Weseman. The Hutto, Texas native very quietly put together one of the best offensive seasons of any player in the nation as she hit .424 with 21 home runs and 65 RBI. She will lead the Jackets into 2012 and you know that when they set their team goals and at the top is a trip to Oklahoma City, they will mean it.


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