Nov. 11, 2016
By Jon Cooper
The Good Word
The most difficult part of any process is not getting too high or too low during the peaks and valleys along the way.
Nobody understands that better than Georgia Tech softball head coach Shelly Hoerner, who begins her fourth season implementing her process in 2017.
That being said, you can only imagine how good her team’s fall went when hearing Hoerner talk about it.
“I just couldn’t be more pleased with how we finished up the fall,” she said. “It’s been a tough transition in some ways just because there are so many things and so many people that are new but overall it’s been a blessing and it’s just been great to finish on a high note.”
That assessment comes with the caveat that she hadn’t closely examined the numbers, which included her team outscoring their four opponents, 71-9 in going 6-0-1, scoring fewer than six runs only one time while, allowing one-or-fewer runs five times, and more than two runs only once. The Yellow Jackets twice blew away Spartanburg Methodist, a 55-win team in the National Junior College Athletic Association, played a rain-shortened five-inning, 1-1 tie against Alabama Huntsville, a 40-win team in the Gulf South Conference Championships, outscored Anderson (S.C.) College, a solid Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference member (26-14 in 2015), 19-2 in two games, then doubled up 2016 D-III Semifinalist Emory, 11-4 and 9-1.
Hoerner admitted she paid closer attention to getting the team, which includes 10 freshmen — one fewer than the number of sophomores, juniors and seniors COMBINED — on the same page and used to the system of new hitting coach Rodney DeLong and new pitching coach Sage Woodham.
“It’s been about the process,” she said. “They have fully bought in to the process with our new coaches. The atmosphere has just been unbelievable with our whole staff and buying into the staff and buying in to what they’re teaching. That was what the goal was for the fall. So hearing those numbers, that makes me even more happy.”
It wasn’t all smooth sailing, as Hoerner remembered there were times early in fall practice when the team looked every bit like a group that was primarily first-year players. But instead of stressing, Hoerner stressed patience in letting the process play out.
“We had our rough spots when we first started team practice,” Hoerner recalled. “A couple of players — even the upperclassmen — would be like, ‘Well that was just an awful practice. We’ve never had such a bad practice.’ I said, ‘We’re okay. We are okay.’ You have to just hold tight. It’s a process. They have really fully bought in to that.”
The new coaches’ credibility certainly gave Hoerner just cause in preaching patience.
DeLong coached Cameron College in Lawton, Oklahoma, the last three seasons, including leading the Aggies to their most successful season ever in 2015, (41 wins, a .695 winning percentage, both school-bests), while Woodham was Gulf South Conference Pitcher of the Decade for the 2000s at Southern Arkansas University and was part of a Lady Muleriders’ staff that coached the school to its first national ranking and earned NFCA Central Region Coaching Staff of the Year..
“I think each staff member, from our volunteer to our graduate assistant to our full-time staff, has put time into these players more than I’ve ever seen and the rapport that all of us coaches have with the players has helped develop them,” Hoerner said. “We all know when players are confident in themselves and believe in themselves that’s when there’s more success so I couldn’t be more thankful for how the staff has really developed that rapport with the players.”
Despite graduating its top two hitters (Courtney Ziese and Maddie Lionberger), Tech returns sophomore 1B/OF (and huge Chicago Cubs fan) Katie Krzus, senior centerfielder Samantha Pierannunzi, senior outfielder Colleen Darragh and junior shortstop Kelsey Chisholm.
Hoerner liked the way the entire team swung the bat in the fall.
“There are so many good things that I saw with our hitters this fall,” she said. “Of course, Sam Pierannunzi is a triple threat. She showed that this fall by her power with home runs, she’s laid down a bunt to beat it out and she’s also slapping right now. She is really setting the tone. (junior outfielder) Draven Sonnon had a fabulous fall. She worked extremely hard in the offseason and has shown a maturity in her swing. Katie Krzus continues to make adjustments. I love her blue-collar mentality and she is just all about the team. (Junior OF/IF) Malea Bell has come out of her shell and is really showing what she was brought in to do. Kelsey Chisholm has made adjustments in her swing.
“We’re seeing more gap to gap with the changes in their swings that Rodney’s made. I think that’s a positive,” Hoerner added. “They’re going to raise their level. They’ve been through it, they’ve learned. They’re just more fundamental and that’s only going to help us with their pitch selection and their mentality and approach at the plate.”
Improved approach will help the Jackets, who were ninth in the ACC walks and second in the most strikeouts.
The Jackets appear similarly poised to turn the corner in the circle from 2016, when they had the second-highest ERA, allowed the second-most hits, third-most runs (258), had the third-highest opposing batting average and third-fewest strikeouts.
Three different arms shared the load during the fall — junior right-hander Emily Anderson, who was 10-13 with a 3.02 ERA before missing the end of the season with an injury, sophomore righty Jenna Goodrich (11-18, 4.72) and freshman Brooke Barfield, a left-hander who showed tremendous promise. Each excelled and their versatility impressed Hoerner.
“We have three talented pitchers in Emily, Jenna and Brooke and they all bring a different look to the pitching staff,” said Hoerner. “Emily looks good coming off of the injury from last year. Her ball is continuing to move and she’s continued to get better. Jenna’s just matured as a pitcher, which is always nice to see. Her positive demeanor has helped her become more successful. Brooke she throws hard, she moves the ball and her mentality is just she wants the ball. Brooke will definitely see playing time in the circle. No question about that.
“All three of our pitchers really do want the ball all the time, which is a great thing but they believe in each other and they are a staff, which we really haven’t had totally in the past before,” she added. “All three of the pitchers will see a lot of time and I’m very confident in all three of those pitchers.”
Hoerner saw a parallel in the confidence her team showed during the fall with that of the recent World Series Champion Chicago Cubs.
“I do see a little bit of us in the Cubs. They were such a team and that was so great to watch,” she said. “We are all about the team. They love each other, they play hard for each other and it doesn’t matter who gets the credit. That was pretty cool for me to see over the fall but then you watch the World Series and it’s, ‘Hey, you have the Cubs doing that. They don’t care WHO gets the credit.’
While Hoerner will look to seniors Pierannunzi, Darragh and Jessie Kowalewicz, and junior Chisholm for clubhouse leadership, Hoerner expects leadership on the field in the spring to come from all classes. That includes freshmen.
“Some freshmen have really stepped up in games,” she said. “(OF/INF) Crosby Huckabay had a great fall. We really brought her in to be a first baseman but she has seen time in the outfield. She’s got a big stick and is going to do great things. (INF/OF) Karissa Arnold has a lot of speed and has really been able to put the ball in play and make things happen on the base paths. Brooke had a great fall as a left-handed hitter and a pitcher. I do see freshmen in the lineup in the spring.
“This team understands, it doesn’t matter if you’re a freshman or a senior. We’re going to put the best players on the field to win us that game that day and if someone’s not doing their job they’re going to hold them accountable,” Hoerner added. “They’re going to push them to get better because the next day it maybe someone else out there. I think that, in the past three years, we haven’t seen a lot of at Georgia Tech Softball. Again, it’s a process. They’re just more confident. They’re having fun and when you’re having fun you’re going to be more successful.”
The players are having SO much fun they can’t wait to get back on the field.
“We ended fall practice on Wednesday and they were in the cages on Thursday doing individual work,” said Hoerner. “You know they’re excited when they WANT to get to the cages.”