The Good Word | by Jon Cooper
There was a time when playing in — and winning — ACC Tournament was a Georgia Tech softball tradition.
Aileen Morales never missed it in her four years (2005-08) playing shortstop.
Neither did Kate Kantor — then Kate Kuzma — who followed Morales (2009-12) and was all-ACC tournament in 2010 and 2012, catching and playing left field.
That time is coming back and starts Thursday night, when the No. 6 Yellow Jackets (28-25, 13-11) take the field at 7:30 p.m., taking on No. 3 North Carolina (29-25, 15-8). Not only will they return, they’ll do so at Mewborn Field, the host for the 2018 ACC Tournament.
“Any time you get to the postseason it’s exciting. It’s a fun time,” said Morales, completing her first season as head coach at her alma mater. “It’s a culmination of all the hard work that our players have put in. So as a coach, it’s extremely rewarding to have that opportunity and to have them get to experience postseason play, because nobody on this roster has before. We’re very grateful to have the opportunity to be here and represent our school.
“I think there’s a comfort level with playing at home, you’re in your normal surroundings, in your normal routine. That’s really nice,” she added. “I think it’s definitely an advantage because we’re familiar with our field, there are teams that are playing here this year did not play on our home field, so it’s definitely an advantage because we know how our field plays and all the nuances of the field.”
Senior pitcher Emily Anderson, who had a career season, winning 19 games and ranking among the top pitchers in the ACC in everything from wins to starts to innings pitched, to opposing batting average to strikeouts and strikeouts looking, can’t wait to feed off the home crowd.
“I think we can do pretty well in the tournament,” said Anderson. “We had standing room only for the Georgia game [a hard-fought 1-0 loss] so I’m hoping that many people will end up coming to ACC’s because that was a really good atmosphere to play in.”
“That’s going to be great to have that home field advantage,” agreed senior centerfielder Draven Sonnon, the team’s home run- and RBI-producer. “We haven’t been there the past three years so it being our first year there’s just a lot of excitement. It’s our home turf. The ACC tournament is something big but to have it on our home field is something that’s unmatched.”
The Jackets haven’t been to postseason play since the 2014 season, but their style is conducive to postseason success.
“They compete. Regardless of the score they’re always battling,” said Morales. “Maybe we’re down in the early innings but there’s this constant belief that we can come back and that we can win the game. They have that grit out there. When the going gets tough they’re going to work harder. They really respond to those tough moments and just keep competing.”
“One of the coolest things about this team is that there’s never a point with this team that we’ve given up. We’ve never come to a point in a game where a run has been scored on us and we’ve just said, ‘Oh, we’re done,’” said Kantor, also in her first season as volunteer assistant coach. “Even when runs are scored, and, it’s 0-0 and the other team pushes that one run across and I’m think, ‘We’re going to respond right now with our bats. It’s almost like we play with an edge whenever they score on us or whenever they take the lead because, honestly, I think we thrive on that. It shows that they are scrappy and they’re not going to give up whenever things don’t go our way. That’s really cool.”
The Jackets players have raised their game in ACC play, winning five series and have showed resilience, as they are 6-6 in ACC play in games opponents score first.
While Anderson is the ace, the Jackets have depth, especially with sophomore Brooke Barfield right behind her. Barfield threw a complete-game, four-hit shutout at Boston College in her most recent start and is holding opposing hitters to a .263 average.
“We’ve had really good showings from our other pitchers, obviously, Emily has done a great job,” said Kantor. “So we know that we have a lot of cool and a lot of player attributes that haven’t been necessarily shown throughout the entire season and we get to display those and they get to come out and fight this week.”
A lot of those attributes came to the forefront once a group of freshmen — nine on the roster, three in the starting lineup (corner outfielders Cameron Stanford and Breanna Roper and second baseman Lilly Hooper) and a fourth stepping into the circle (lefty Naomi Dickerson) — realized they had it.
That realization came in a midseason team meeting, where Morales basically drew a roadmap to postseason using numerical probability. What better way to communicate with Georgia Tech student-athletes?
“We kind of just broke down, ‘Here are the rest of your opponents, here is where the rest of the ACC is, here is what you need to do to have a chance at postseason,’ things like that,” she recalled. “I do believe that showing numbers and percentages really seemed to resonate with our players. We tried to use numbers and those visuals to an advantage, to help them see, ‘Okay, if you win on the road it helps you even more.’ It’s not always about winning the game, it’s about winning the series and how you put yourself in the best situation to do that.”
The Jackets believe they’re in a good situation on their side of the bracket. They took the series from North Carolina and, should they advance, they also won two of three from No. 7 Duke and No. 10 Virginia Tech, while giving No. 2 Pittsburgh all they could handle before losing the series. The Duke/Virginia Tech winner plays Pittsburgh on Thursday prior to Tech-UNC.
“We know we can beat any of those teams. So that’s a nice feeling,”. The more times you see a pitcher I feel like the more prepared you are as a hitter. Same thing from our pitchers’ standpoint, they’re more familiar with all the batters and things like that. I think we’re in a good spot, we’ve got a good side of the bracket to be on. It will be interesting. UNC has seen everything that we have from our pitching staff and we’ve seen everything that they have. So it’s just going to come down to who wants it more.”
“We’ve told them, ‘You’re not guaranteed another game,’ unless we keep winning,” Kantor said. “We’ve told them, ‘The team that wins is the team that scores the most runs. It’s not always the best team. It’s the team that’s going to be the toughest, the team that’s going to be the scrappiest. We have found ways.”
Georgia Tech has a history in winning the ACC Tournament, and Kantor played an integral role in the last championship in 2012, driving in what proved to be the championship-clinching run with an opposite-field single to right in a 9-1 run-rule win over Virginia Tech.
Senior shortstop and four-year starter Kelsey Chisholm has crunched the numbers and believes history can repeat.
“The last time that we won four series in the ACC, Tech won the Tournament,” Chisholm pointed out. “It’s exciting to look back at those facts and look at what we’re doing this year. I don’t know what to expect but I know it’s at home and I know that we’re super-excited to see how far we can get in it.”
Regardless of how far they advance, there’s no question that they won’t go down quietly.
“I think the fight that this team has is unique,” Kantor said. “We might not have the better record, we’re sixth seed, but we’ve won a lot of series this year. This team has a lot of fight. There’s a lot of belief on this team that we can walk away with the championship or at least make a really great run at it. In terms of the ACC, we’re a new team, we have new goals. We’re not at the top but we have the belief that we can be there.”
“I think it’s a great stepping stone, this year,” said Morales. “Your team starts accomplishing different things that are benchmarks, beating teams that we lost to last year. It’s really rewarding to see those players perform at a higher level than they had in the past. I look back to eight years ago we were hosting a regional and a super regional. That’s the vision that we have and this is a great step towards that.”