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#STINGDAILY: Junior Partners

Feb. 7, 2013

by Jon Cooper, Sting Daily –

There’s a lot to be said for growing together.

Hayley Downs, Alysha Rudnik and Ashley Thomas plan to say all of those things during the course of the 2013 softball season.

Downs, Tech’s center fielder, Rudnik, the team’s catcher and third baseman, and Thomas, the Jackets’ shortstop, came in together in 2011, were key pieces of ACC Champions in 2012 and are planning big things as veteran leaders for 2013.

“I think this year we’ve started with a whole different mindset. We’re having more of a postseason focus,” said Downs, who started all 60 games, struck out only six times, put down a team-high 11 sacrifice bunts and swiped 17 bases in 19 tries. “We want to stay first in the ACC all season instead of having to fight back and have to win the Tournament at the end. We want to win the Tournament, obviously, but we want to dominate the ACC the whole season.”

The season opens up with a double-header at Mewborn Field as part of this weekend’s Georgia Tech-Kennesaw State Invitational. Tech kicks it off at 3:00 p.m. against Eastern Michigan, then a 5:00 p.m. tilt against Butler. On Saturday, it’s another twin bill, starting with Missouri State (first pitch is at noon), then Coastal Carolina (a 2:00 p.m. start) and finally, on Sunday, they complete the weekend with a 1:00 p.m. rematch with Coastal.

It’s a busy weekend, but one they team is itching to get into.

“Everyone’s really, really excited just to get started,” said Thomas, who led the team and was sixth in the ACC with 57 hits last season. “We’ve had a whole month of hard practices and getting better and so playing games Friday is extremely exciting for all of us.

“We’re definitely really confident,” she added. “We know what we’re capable of and even though we lost some valuable players from last year we’ve gained quite a few. We all have the same mindset on what we want to accomplish and we have strong leadership so I think that’s the confidence we have. We know we know what we can do. We know what we’re capable of. So just taking that and applying it in our games and using that confidence is something that we’re going to take over from last year.”

The Jackets, who were picked for third in the ACC in preseason polls and currently are unranked,  had an up-and-down 2012. They jumped out to a 7-2 start, evened off at 8-8, won seven of eight, dropped four of five, reeled off 12 straight then lost five of six. In postseason, they got hot and blasted their way to an ACC Tournament Championship but then lost two of three to South Alabama in the NCAA Tournament Regionals.

“Last year, I feel like once we got to the ACC Tournament, that became our biggest goal and we kind of lost sight of after that,” said Downs. “This year we need to set our sights higher and have more of a postseason focus than we did last year. As far as individual play goes, our consistency needs to start in practice and I think it has. We’re improving little things, we’re mentally tougher and we’re not going to get swept again.”

Consistency is a buzz word around the Jackets, especially for Rudnik, who was second to Thomas in hits, was third on the team in homers and, defensively, committed just five errors with a sparkling .985 fielding percentage. She will split time at third and catcher, the spots played by 2012 key contributors Kelsi Weseman (third) and Kate Kuzma (catcher). She’ll split time at both spots with freshman slugger Courtney Ziese, and is a big-time bat in the middle of the order with Hope Rush.

“For me, especially looking into this year and knowing that I am in a leadership position, I definitely want to be more consistent and not slump,” said Rudnik. “Just consistency with my mentality, consistency with my hitting. I’ve definitely been working hard with my swing and I feel really good with it. Just having that confidence when I go up there at the plate knowing that I’m good enough, have that mentality, I think that’s going to rub off on other people.”

The trio of Downs, Rudnik and Thomas can count on each other because they know each other so well. They have been almost inseparable since arriving on campus. Rudnik and Downs, both Georgia natives — Rudnik’s from Lawrenceville, Downs from Grayson — played travel ball together and have been roommates at Tech since freshman year. The duo immediately took to Thomas, who came from McKinney, Texas, the home of then Yellow Jackets pitcher Kristen Adkins. Downs and Thomas were dopplegangers early.

“No one could tell us apart. Everyone thought we were twins,” said Downs. “So we always had a very fun bond together and me and Alysha are pretty much as close as they come. We all have a mutual respect for each other in our talents and what we each bring to the table and it’s each a little different. I would say we have a really strong bond between the three of us.”

That bond allows an open exchange ideas with each other as well as the coaching staff, and keeps the lines of communication clear both ways.

“We’re comfortable with talking to each other about anything,” said Thomas. “Having that relationship with each other and that relationship with the coaches helps us have a team that is open with the coach as well as the other teammates. Having that ability to communicate what the team is thinking to the coach and what the coaches are thinking to our team, I think that definitely helps the team as a whole.”

The trio is excited about taking on the leadership mantle and putting into practice what they’ve learned over the past two years.

“It’s definitely cool that we’re getting to be leaders together. We’ve grown really close throughout the last three years,” said Rudnik. “We get to spend a lot of time with each other outside of softball so we definitely are really good friends but we also all have a real strong desire to do well this year. We’re older and we know what it takes to get to that next level. We’re definitely trying to steer everyone in that right direction.

“The coaches are telling us what they want from us, what they’re wanting us to talk to the team about. So we’re kind of relaying that to them,” she added. “Also just the fact that I’m catching, Ashley’s playing shortstop and Hayley plays center, we’re the heart of the field. We’re able to help our teammates out and we’re in the middle of all the action, which is really fun, too.”

The fun begins today and, they hope, won’t end until June.

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