March 14, 2018
The Good Word | by Jon Cooper
While there’s no substitute for experience, getting freshmen that experience and being competitive at the ACC level can be hard.
Or you can do what Aileen Morales is doing, taking the class label off the roster, unleashing her nine freshmen and letting the chips fall where they may.
Playing freshmen isn’t a risk at all. She just thinks back to her experiences as a freshman in 2005, when she earned ACC Rookie of the Year and all-ACC second team honors, after starting every game at second base, leading the team in hits and setting a new program stolen base record — one that she would break three years later.
So It’s natural for her to expect freshmen to contribute — especially these freshmen.
“In the fall we saw that this freshman group had talent and a strong work ethic,” said Morales, in her first season as head coach back on The Flats. “They came in willing to be coached and wanted to put in the work it takes to compete at this level. We knew we would need the freshman to step up and fill some starting roles for us, and we have been impressed with what they have shown thus far.”
They’re starting to impress a lot of people.
Heading into this weekend’s four-game homestand against No. 12 Alabama (17-5) on Wednesday then North Carolina State (12-9, 1-3) this weekend in their ACC home-opener, the Yellow Jackets (14-7, 3-0) have won six straight — including the program’s first ACC opening sweep since 2011 — 12 out of 13 and find themselves in first place in the Coastal Division. Only No. 15 Florida State, Louisville, which is receiving votes for the top 25, and Notre Dame, all in the Atlantic Division, have more wins in the ACC.
Contributions from the ennead of first-year players is a big reason why.
Three of them, right fielder Breanna Roper, left fielder Cameron Stanford and infielder Lilly Hooper, start. A fourth, lefty pitcher Naomi Dickerson, is in the pitching rotation, and the other five, including Saige Pye, Skye Webb and Jaydra von Behren all are at the ready, to play their important roles coming off the bench as pinch hitters, pinch runners, whatever role is required.
“I think we all came in with the mindset of shaking up the team,” said left fielder Cameron Stanford, an Alpharetta, Ga., native (Alpharetta High School). “You can never know what to expect as a freshman but we all came in with a broad mentality of really trying to push everybody to be the best that we can be. Whether that’s pushing in practice or staying focused during the games, to come back, we’re all expected to contribute.”
“We have a great freshman class. I’ve known that since the fall,” said Hooper, a Cataula, Ga., native (Harris County). “We have a lot of personality. It’s not just the starters in Bre, Cam and myself. You’ve got Saige, who’s a great pinch-hitter, Jaydra is a great pinch-runner. I think we provide a lot to this team. A lot of leadership as well. I hope that we’ve been able to push the seniors. It’s been a lot of fun — a lot of fun to watch. I grew up playing with some of these girls and so just seeing where we can take that is awesome.”
The group is contributing in any and every way. It starts at the top of the order, where leadoff hitter Roper (Woodstock, Ga., Woodstock H.S.), who made history on Feb. 16 by blasting a grand slam against No. 22 Nebraska, and two-hole hitter Stanford start a dizzying offensive merry-go-round.
Last weekend, Roper, who leads the ACC in walks (along with sophomore teammate Crosby Huckabay), and 10th in triples (tied with senior teammate Draven Sonnon) reached base 12 times, getting four hits (including a triple) in eight at-bats (.500), and also drawing eight walks. She had a .750 on-base percentage, slugged .875, scored four runs and drove in six more.
Stanford followed Roper, also hitting .500 (5-for-10), with a homer, a double, six runs scored, and four driven in. She had a .533 OBP and .900 slugging average. Cam ranks in the top 10 in the ACC in runs, home runs, slugging, on-base percentage, and sacrifice flies and leads the Jackets in batting average, runs, hits (tied with junior Katie Krzus), doubles, total bases, and slugging.
It’s quite a left-right combo.
“The two of them combined have been tough outs for opponents,” said Morales. “Roper has done a great job of producing quality at-bats to start off the game. Stanford has the ability to get on base as well but with a high slugging percentage. Being able to use her in the two hole has been great because she also is able to drive in runs. I think they continue to grow. Overall I have been impressed with how they have stepped up and filled valuable roles in our lineup.”
Hooper, who batted fifth in all three games at Virginia, has frequently found herself re-starting the carousel. She’s been an on-base machine, leading the team in on-base percentage. Her willingness to get on in any way has manifested in her being plunked seven times this season. That’s second in the ACC and actually is one more than the entire Louisville roster.
“It’s something that I’m aware of as a hitter,” she said. “I’ve been in some places where I’ve needed to just get on in certain circumstances. So if the pitcher’s going to throw it that inside and at me, I’m not going to move. Part of my game is to get on base as much as I can for these bigger hitters behind me. I’m willing to do that. I’ve had the opportunity to leadoff a lot of innings so if I can get on, even if with two outs, I think that’s important.”
Defensively, she’s played second, where she’s made the lion’s share of her starts, short and third.
“Coach Morales said we’re going to work on playing who’s hitting the ball so I think my versatility definitely helps me out a lot,” she said. “So if I can keep hitting the ball we’re going to find a place on the field for the people who are hitting. It’s been exciting.”
Dickerson was very excited in the first game on Saturday, as she got her first ACC win, the beneficiary of an 18-run outburst, in the five-inning 18-9 win. She likes her role as part of a staff that includes senior ace Emily Anderson and sophomore Brooke Barfield (Stanford also has taken the ball).
“I have to thank my Emily and Brooke for helping me out. They’re teaching me the ropes and just what to expect,” said the California native, who is 4-2 in 10 games (seven starts), with a 3.56 ERA and a .282 opponent batting average — the latter two took something of a hit after the slugfest. “Coach Alison [Owen] has also helped me so much. It’s like night and day from when we first started to now. I know I still have a lot more to improve on and I’m excited to see how much I grow in the future.”
Dickerson’s road mirrors the entire team. So does her enthusiasm, which is contagious throughout the class and is spreading throughout the team.
“We’ve very competitive,” said Roper. “At practice, in the outfield, Jaydra and I will play `knockout’ and see who makes an error first. Whoever does loses that round. The competitive aspect is something that the coaches are really trying to push and something we’ve embodied as a team.”
“[Coach Morales] is every bit as competitive as the rest of us are,” said Hooper. “Having someone come in every day who wants it just as bad as you is really appreciated and it’s awesome to see. I think that we’ve been buying into that brand that she’s been offering up.”
That ultra-competitiveness showed up in Virginia, as the Jackets came from behind in all three games.
“I think it plants a big seed,” Hooper said. “This weekend, there wasn’t a moment where I thought that we were going to lose the game. To be able to feel that way, in your first ACC game, I think that tells a lot of as to what this team is capable of.”
“I think that it sends a message about how our team is built this year,” said Stanford. “We’re going to go out and try to win every game to the end. I think this weekend was about how our team has been able to work hard and is focused on winning the game no matter what happens. We really want to take that mindset and fight on.”
They’ll fight from the top of the Coastal — lightyears away from their 2-6 start. It’s a feeling they can get used to but certainly won’t be satisfied with.
“That feels amazing. Before ACC play started, we were kind of looked at as the underdog from the past years,” said Dickerson. “This new coaching staff, they’ve changed the way we view the game, so we kind of have a chip on our shoulder and something to prove to everyone. It’s exciting to come out and shock people. They’re like, `Wow, this new Georgia Tech team. They really are coming out to win. We need to compete.'”
“I think the work that we’ve put into practice shows the work that we put into the games,” said Roper. “We came in wanting to change the Georgia Tech way of softball. Every day we’re working harder and harder to embody the Georgia Tech brand and make it better for ourselves for years to come.”