Feb. 5, 2014
By Jon Cooper
The Good Word
It’s a blessing and a curse to be in the shoes of Georgia Tech softball head coach Shelly Hoerner.
Everywhere she looks, there are talented players vying for places in the starting lineup. That’s the blessing.
But she can only start nine in the field and insert one more bat in the batting order. That’s the curse.
Don’t expect too much cursing over that curse, however. Hoerner, who begins her inaugural season as Jackets head coach on Saturday afternoon at Mewborn Field with a double-header against Missouri State (first pitch is at noon) isn’t grousing at all.
She loves what she’s seen and can’t wait to test it against live competition.
“The entire team has done a great job,” she said. “It’s a new environment and they’re just busting their butts competing day in and day out for positions. Positions are still up for grabs and we want them to compete day in and day out because roles can change on a daily basis. So nothing is locked down right now.”
The Yellow Jackets are trying to bounce back from a 2013 season that saw them finish 25-30, 10-10 in the ACC , where they finished fifth. It was Tech’s first losing season in 12 years and the first non-winning conference season in five.
Hoerner, who was hired to replace Sharon Perkins on June 21, believes last season was a hiccup and that the Yellow Jackets can regain contender status in the ACC.
She’ll count on the leadership, both on the field and in the clubhouse, of a talented senior class that includes 2013 ACC Player of the Year shortstop Ashley Thomas, fellow ’13 first-teamer C/3B Alysha Rudnik, two-year starter, centerfielder Hayley Downs and outfielder Kaitlin Kates.
“The senior class has really set the tone,” said Hoerner. “That makes me extremely proud of them. Obviously, having returners back in most positions, the experience that they have from last year in playing together always helps.”
“We’ve just kind of been doing what we’ve been doing all along, letting the underclassmen know that we’re here, they can talk to us,” said Thomas. “We’re all really together with each other. There are four of us. We help out with anything on and off the field, really.”
While the Hoerner Era hasn’t officially begun, early signs indicate a positive direction.
“It’s going great so far. A lot of new traditions are starting,” said Thomas. “We all mesh really well. There’s a lot of good chemistry on the team. Coach Hoerner is a great person to have along with us this year. She’s awesome.”
“I’m really excited,” agreed Rudnik. “We have a lot of stuff going on, but we’re really trying to all stay focused and just get ready, not just the start of the games but kind of preparing for the entire thing.”
The ’14 Yellow Jackets have a roster that has experience, especially up the middle, with Rudnik catching, Thomas at short and Downs in centerfield.
“Rud’ and Ashley Thomas, who, obviously, was the Player of the Year, those two are the leaders of the team along with Hayley,” said Hoerner. “So right now up the middle are the leaders of the team.”
There is a new look to the infield, as sophomore Maddie Lionberger moves to second base, while junior Chelsie Thomas moves to third after starting last season at second. Last year’s starting third baseman, slugger Courtney Ziese is also in the mix.
“We’ve kind of flip-flopped those second and third,” said Hoerner. “[Thomas and Lionberger] are still taking balls at each position but we’re just seeing where our best options are and our strengths.
“Chelsie is doing a phenomenal job at third base,” she continued. “She was a third baseman coming out of high school and she just LOVES playing third base. I just recently found that out and Maddie Lionberger is a middle infielder. They recruited her for shortstop. So we just made some changes. Obviously, Courtney’s bat is huge as well. So that could be a DP position but, again, everyone’s competing. Honestly, we won’t know our starting lineup until the day before.”
Starting corner outfielders surrounding Downs also are still being decided.
“Coach Jake Jury has pushed the outfielders to probably an extent that they’ve never been pushed before,” said Hoerner. “Their throws are on point. The communication is good and they are tracking balls down. They get to a lot of balls. We’ve got a lot of speed in the outfield.”
With last year’s starting right fielder Katie Johnsky a little banged up, the Opening Day outfield is wide open. Hoerner likes what freshmen Colleen Darragh and Sam Pierannunzi have shown as well as sophomore Morgan Taylor, who started 54 of the team’s 55 games in left field last season.
“They’re actually rotating,” said Hoerner. “Hayley is the mainstay in center field but right and left field we’ve been rotating every other outfielder in both of those positions, from our freshmen to our returners.”
The players have made it difficult for the coaching staff to nail down a starting lineup.
“Every day someone steps up differently,” Hoerner said. “Someone else comes up with a few clutch hits, some big hits, the home run or just poking balls through. Really we can play anyone in the outfield. It’s just going to be who’s producing that day.”
Pitching has been a little easier to sort out. While losing Hope Rush is a big blow, the Jackets are well-armed, with juniors Kylie Kleinschmidt and Karly Fullem, and freshman Kanani Cabrales. Sophomore Ashley Clifton could throw her hat in the ring once she gets healthy.
“Kylie and `Nani’ are going to be our go-to pitchers,” said Hoerner. “We play a lot of double-headers so we foresee each starting a game. Kylie led us in the fall and Nani had to transition as a freshman, but you would not know she’s a freshman.”
Their contrasting styles — Kleinschmidt works hard and up in the zone, while Cabrales relies on a little less velocity on her dropball — makes for a nice contrast. Fullem’s consistency has pleased the coaches as a third starter.
All the talent that doesn’t get to start will fortify the Jackets’ bench.
“They’re so competitive and with the talent that we have there are going to be talented players on the bench, unfortunately,” said Hoerner. “They could start at other programs. It’s just that we have a lot of talent on our team. But they will know as the year progresses, that when you believe in your role the team will be successful. We have 18 talented players. We’ll be able to use them in key situations, which will help us be successful.”
The one-for-all approach has led to the team’s motto of “Together Team.”
“Coach Hoerner had a few mottos but we all loved `Together Team,’ because that’s what we are,” said Thomas. “You either win together or you lose together. No matter what, we play together. We play as one. So the only way we’re going to reach our ultimate goals — ACC Championship, Regionals, Super Regionals — the only way we’re going to reach it is if we are working together towards one goal as a team.”
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