Aug. 10, 2013
By Jon Cooper
There may not be a more prestigious tournament held during the summer than the Amateur Softball Association (ASA) 18U GOLD National Championship.
It’s a final go-round for high school seniors who will soon be showing their wares on the college level and an important proving ground as far as their ability to step up at the next level against the best in the country.
Following the 2013 18-U GOLD there shouldn’t be any more questions about the readiness of Georgia Tech-bound outfielder Samantha Pierannunzi.
The Lawrenceville, Ga., native and Peachtree Ridge High School star was a force at the plate in leading the Atlanta Vipers to a perfect 7-0 record in bracket play (they were 2-1 in pool play, practice games, of sorts) and the tournament championship. Behind their right fielder, the Vipers outscored their opponents 33-7 in the seven games, but also proved they could win close games, taking a pair of one-run game, a two-run game and a three-run game.
“We had a mindset at the beginning of the summer, ‘We have the talent to be able to win nationals,'” said Pierannunzi. “So to get there and actually do it and go undefeated was crazy. I’m just really grateful to play a part in it.”
Her “part in it” was hitting .412 (7-for-17), with a homer, a triple, and five RBIs, all team-highs (or tied for team-high), while scoring five runs, a .444 on-base percentage, a .700 slugging percentage and a 1.15 OPS, all second or tied for second on the team. She also got timely hits, as in four different games, she either scored or drove in what would prove to be the winning run. In the Vipers’ two games on July 26, she had a one-out RBI single off Texas Tech right-hander Danielle Brochu to break a scoreless tie — she would score later in the inning — in a two-run fifth inning to beat Team Mizuno Impulse, 2-0, and she hit a one-out triple in the top of the seventh then scored on a balk to break a 1-1 tie in the 2-1 victory over Tulsa Elite 95.
She called the latter her most memorable moment of the tournament.
“That was probably my happiest moment from Nationals because I contributed and I helped my team when they needed me,” she recalled of the 1-2 blast she hit to the fence in straightaway center off Oklahoma State-bound righty Mallory Collins. “They’re all such good hitters, but I was able to pick them up and help them along in that game. At the end of the day, if I can contribute even in the smallest way then I did my job and I had a successful day.”
She was a successful the next day, in the clinching game, blasting her first home run of the tournament leading off the third off right-hander Kylee Hanson (committed to Florida Atlantic), to ignite a four-run rally in a 6-1 win over Rock 18 Gold.
Coming through in big spots has become a matter of mentally scaling down expectations.
“Whenever I get in situations like that I try to take the big ‘I have to hit a home run’ out of it and just try and make something small happen,” she said. “That week, whenever I tried to make something small happen something big happened instead. If you can just relax yourself enough to put yourself in a successful situation then a successful situation will come to you.”
The success of the Vipers’ pitching helped make the offense’s job easier, as their trio of pitchers, Megan Betsa, Pierannunzi’s close friend and teammate since 12-and-under (she’s headed to Michigan), Samantha Martin (she’s headed to College of Charleston, having been recruited by new Georgia Tech Coach Shelly Hoerner) and Jenna Abbott (going to Auburn), dominated. They pitched to a 0.89 ERA (six earned runs, seven total, in 47 innings), while holding opposing hitters to a .139 batting average, striking out 71, while allowing only 23 hits and 14 walks.
“We were really fortunate this year with the very strong pitchers and they really stepped up that week,” said Pierannunzi. “I know they had a significant number of strikeouts and, our defense that they had behind them, when they did get hit, we were able to make big plays and get the job done. Add our hitting on top of that and we were really bound to win.”
Pierannunzi is bound for Georgia Tech bringing confidence in her ability to only get on by slapping and with an improved ability to hit for power, as she had an .800 slugging percentage in the U18 Tournament as well as a .467 on-base percentage — a 1.267 OPS. That followed her senior season during which she hit a career-high 11 homers, with a .481 batting average. She also showed she can run, stealing 29 bases.
Georgia Tech’s lefties primarily provided speed, swiping 63 of the team’s 94 steals, led by starting shortstop Ashley Thomas (a team-best 37) and center fielder Hayley Downs (17), but only managed eight home runs, with only Katie Johnsky (six) and Morgan Taylor (two) providing them.
“That’s something that I’m still working with, when exactly is the best time to hit vs. bunt, vs. slap,” she said. “My freshman year I was mainly a slapper. I had almost all singles and like one double. Then this year, I had like a couple of singles and an over-.400 batting average with like 11 home runs. The way it’s shifted is ridiculous. I think that will make me a bigger threat on the bigger level.”
One thing she knows is she won’t be intimidated facing the biggest names in the nation on the collegiate level. That fearlessness helped her succeed in the U18 GOLD Championships and, really since she started playing tournaments at age 12.
“If you are blindsided by the fact that the pitcher in front of you is going to be pitching next year in an Alabama jersey you get so sidetracked that it really takes away from your talent level,” she said.
“So the hardest part of the game is just letting all of that go and just playing softball.
“I’ve played 18 Gold two years now so for several years now I’ve been playing people that are going to big schools,” she added. “I don’t think until this year I realized we all have to play the same game of softball. It’s not like because she’s going to Alabama or she’s going to a huge school she doesn’t have to play the same game as me.”