The Good Word | by Jon Cooper
Chances are good that come late April, early May, no one is going to remember the final score of Friday’s game between Georgia Tech and West Georgia (first pitch at Mewborn Field is 5 p.m.).
That doesn’t mean that the game, the Yellow Jackets’ final game of their six-game fall slate, doesn’t matter.
In fact, there could be plays or at bats in the game that matter a great deal down the road, as the Jackets compete for position in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament, and, ideally, a coastal division championship.
“We’re just trying to figure out how we can put the best lineup that will score us the most runs and be the best defensively,” said second-year head coach Aileen Morales, who led the Jackets to a 28-26 record (13-11 in the ACC) and back to the ACC tournament for the first time in five years last year. “So it’s just kind of putting people in different spots. Players take reps at a lot of different positions in practice. There have been a couple of games we put them in at a position they’ve never played before — they’d gotten reps there but never played it in a game.”
The experimenting has worked well in the first five games — granted against a lower level of competition — as the Jackets have hit double-figures three times, scored eight runs in another and have lost only one game. While that success is nice, the fall has been more about building on last year’s success. That includes getting at bats for outfielder Cameron Stanford, a second-team all-ACC and all-ACC freshman team selection, who led the Jackets in batting average (.292), on-base percentage (.419) and slugging (.549), and Katie Krzus, the team’s leading returning slugger (9 homers, 33 RBIs) and one of two seniors on the roster.
As important is getting at bats for players who may not have gotten as much field time last year or are new to the program — Tech has eight new faces (three transfers and five incoming freshmen) and 16 underclassmen.
“These fall games have been great for us because we’ve had opportunities to get people innings and at bats and just see them in a more competitive setting, where they can kind of relax and compete,” Morales said. “Last year everybody was trying to impress everybody all the time, because of the new coaching staff and everything was new. Now everybody’s kind of a little bit more settled in and knows what to expect and knows the pace of practice and just the pace of how we do things in general. But there are still a lot of question marks. I won’t say we have it all figured out yet, at all.”
The summer was a good one in acquiring some of the pieces to help with that figuring out. Sophomore infielder Tricia Awald, who transferred from Kennesaw State, could be a big addition offensively. The lefty-swinger was Atlantic Sun Freshman of the Year and led KSU in batting average, (.380), slugging (.727), on-base percentage (.489), runs (41), home runs (14) and RBI (42), while leading the Owls to their first ASUN Tournament Championship.
“She was a huge, huge get for us,” said Morales. “We had very few lefty bats in the lineup, lefty power-hitters like Tricia. Even when she gets out she hits the ball hard. So she’s a tough out. She’s really competitive as well and very cerebral player when she talks about her approach. You have her and then you have Katie Krzus, who has been consistent for us in the lineup, and Cam (Stanford) coming back. There are some really good hitters returning for us so you can piece together a nice middle of the lineup.”
The Jackets also used the transfer route to get stronger on the mound, bringing in a pair of junior right-handers, Morgan Bruce, from Ole Miss, the Rebels’ first SEC all-freshman selection two years ago, and Amber Johns from North Georgia, an NFCA first-team all-American and a finalist for NFCA Player of the Year last year.
“Those two alone, that’s some experience of competing at a very high level that comes on our roster,” said Morales. “They’re very, very competitive. The thing with those two is just allowing them to kind of settle in in the moment and don’t try to overthrow.
“It’s been great this fall to see Morgan (Bruce), Amber (Johns) and some of our returners out there throwing on the mound and getting some valuable innings under their belts for us,” she added. “First and foremost our number one priority was getting better on the mound and I think we’ve definitely had an opportunity to see that we’ve improved there. We’ve got a couple of new arms and a freshman, Palmer Pinholster, as well. So three new arms on our staff is exciting because if you saw us last year, we didn’t have very much depth at all at that position.”
Morales hopes improved depth in the circle combined with experience gained from playing last year will manifest itself in the sophomore class of eight, which included key contributors, including Stanford, infielder Lilly Hooper, and outfielder Breanna Roper.
“There are a lot of transitions that happen as a freshman, just from getting used to going to college, let alone playing at a Power 5 and playing a Power 5 schedule,” she said. “I think a year under their belts, they know what to expect now, they’re used to the schedule, the routine, all that stuff. We’re a year older so that’s going to help us from a maturity standpoint.”
That added maturity also needs to translate into working hard during the individual training period which begins once the fall ends.
“You have to keep pushing yourself to get better. Our goal is to get a little bit better every single day,” Morales said. “If you kind of zone out in the individual time, someone’s going to beat you out because there are enough people here now that can compete for a position. It’s made it a lot more competitive at practices because there are people fighting to get that starting spot. So there’s always someone who’s right there competing with you. If you just settle and you coast you’re going to be in trouble because somebody else isn’t coasting. They’re working.
“The way we talk about it, we’re competing to win a conference championship and Florida State just won a national championship. So it’s no joke who we’re competing with,” she added. “We want to be the best that we possibly can be. You’ve got to bring that mentality every day.”