May 16, 2002
By Simit Shah – Freshmen are supposed to struggle. That’s just a fact of life, and there are a hundred reasons why they do. Someone just forgot to tell that to Jessica Sallinger.
The Lady Jackets’ pitching phenom has taken the college ranks by storm in her first season, and she’s played an integral role in earning the softball program its first-ever NCAA Championship invitation. Tech faces Alabama in he first round of the tournament Thursday in Tallahassee, Fla.
Sallinger has been nothing short of dominant this season. Her 25-7 record shattered the school mark for wins in a season (previously 17 by Misty Reeder). Her 287 strikeouts not only broke the single-season record, but also the Tech career mark of 281. Her ERA is a microscopic 1.17.
“I can’t really explain it,” she said. “I had no idea what the competition was going to be like at this level. In high school, you pitch from 40 feet, and you move back three feet in college. I had no idea that I’d be able to make that adjustment so quickly. I’m still in awe.”
Sallinger was named the ACC Rookie-of-the-Year, and her stellar play has lifted the softball program to new heights in its 17th season. The team set a new regular season benchmark for victories with a 46-16 record.
The team also captured its first ACC Tournament championship last weekend, thanks in large part to Sallinger’s right arm. She pitched all 23 innings of the tournament, striking out 29 and allowing only one earned run.
“That was pretty special,” said Sallinger, the tournament’s MVP. “It’s really unbelievable. The defense behind me was tremendous. They didn’t make any errors. The hitting was amazing. Those things help a lot, going out there knowing you have the defense and offense playing well.”
The winner of the ACC Tournament does not earn an automatic NCAA bid, so the Lady Jackets were hoping to earn an at-large bid. The team gathered at a local sports restaurant to watch the selection show, but the establishment’s satellite dish went out right before the announcement.
The players and coaches found themselves huddled around a telephone waiting to hear if they made the 48-team field.
“That’s not the way we were planning to find out, but we were just as excited,” Sallinger said. “It’s a big step for the school.”
“The young players like Jessica and Tara [Knudsen] has really stepped up this season, and they deserve a lot of the credit for what we’ve done,” added head coach Kate Madden.
While the team’s success this season is certainly unprecedented, winning big is nothing new for Sallinger.
At Harrison High School in suburban Kennesaw, Ga., Sallinger was a three-time all-state selection. She posted a perfect 0.00 ERA while leading her team to a state championship last year. She also was honored as Georgia’s Pitcher-of-the-Year.
Sallinger credits her father Bob, who was a catcher for the New York Mets, for developing her approach to the game.
“He caught me growing up,” she said. “He’s helped me on the mental parts of the game. That’s really eased me into where I am today.”
Another important element to Sallinger’s success has been catcher Lindsay Wood. The junior also caught Sallinger at Harrison three years ago.
“That makes me more comfortable on the mound,” Sallinger said. “We work well together. She knows how I like to pitch. It makes it easier for me.”
Sallinger also noted that Wood’s knowledge of hitters around the league has been instrumental in calling the right pitches.
For now, Sallinger and the Lady Jackets are firmly focused on first-round opponent Alabama, ranked 18th in the nation. Earlier this week, Sallinger spoke to a friend on the University of Georgia softball team to get the scoop on the Crimson Tide.
“We start off with a very good team, so we’re not looking past Alabama,” she said. “It’s an honor to get a bid. We’re very excited, but we just need to calm down and play. This is the big time. Alabama is no joke.”
The 2002 campaign has been a success by any measure, but Sallinger and the Lady Jackets still have some unfinished business.
“We had no idea we’d be this strong and effective, but everything has come together,” Sallinger said. “We’re playing very well right now, and we’re not ready to pack it up just yet.”