Feb. 1, 2017
By Jon Cooper
The Good Word
The softball season is a long road.
The journey can be reeeeeeally long in early February, when you’re on a diamond with no games in sight, and there’s only ground ball after ground ball, fly ball after fly ball, drill after drill. Sometimes, the only thing that keeps players’ minds from wandering too far is the sudden whipping of a frosty wind, snapping them back to reality.
Who can blame the Georgia Tech softball team for looking ahead to its season-opener on Feb. 9 at 3 p.m., when it meets Cal in the Puerto Rico Tournament in San Juan? The tournament, which will see the Yellow Jackets play five games in four days — twice meeting the Bears, twice taking on Illinois and closing with a game against North Carolina (the only time they’ll see the Tar Heels during the regular season) — is warming their hearts as well as their minds.
“Puerto Rico is going to be warm,” said senior centerfielder Samantha Pierannunzi, who admitted she’s also looking forward to dusting off her Spanish, which she spoke frequently over the summer while studying in Spain. “We’ve been scrimmaging the past few days and it’s been so cold that we’ve had hand-warmers in our pockets and we’re going down there with puffy jackets. It’s going to be warm (in Puerto Rico), so I’m pumped for the beach and all that.”
In the days between taking Mewborn Field and hitting the beach in San Juan, the Yellow Jackets have found a unique way to keep motivated — a T-Shirt.
But this isn’t “Someone went to some cool place and all I got was this lousy T-Shirt.”
This is more like “Someone went above and beyond and what I got is this really cool T-Shirt.”
The gold shirt represents “The Grit Award” and handing it out to that day’s winner has become a much-anticipated feature of every day’s preseason practice.
“We give out a Grit Award almost every day,” said head coach Shelly Hoerner, who’s beginning her fourth season on The Flats. “It means, ‘Who’s really gone the extra mile? Who has really been that blue-collar, gritty player for practice?’ We pick out a gold shirt and they wear it the next day that they’ve earned from the previous practice. I think that has really helped the competition within the team and I think it’s pretty neat.
“If you’re going to hustle, that’s an expectation. Phenomenal plays, great moments, those are things we’re talking about,” Hoerner continued. “Great moments. We’re discussing that as a team every day. Our great moments. That’s important to build confidence within this team but also showing the difference of great moments and grit compared to what an everyday expectation is. Everyone’s working hard but it’s just those standout, gritty players that are going the extra mile before, after and during practice and we just love that. I love hearing them talk about, ‘Hey, so-and-so did this yesterday. That was great.’”
The players are loving it, too, and it’s helping ease what can be an intimidating assimilation process to college softball for the team’s 10 freshmen. In fact, freshman Karissa Arnold won the first Grit Award.
“That was a great feeling,” said Arnold, the Temecula, Calif., infielder/outfielder. “It really pushes us to work harder and do the best we absolutely can each practice and each rep, going 100 percent energy all the time. So I think it really pushes us a lot more to do better.”
Junior Kelsey Chisholm thought “it was pretty cool” that a freshman won the first Grit Award and really enjoys the team’s reminiscing about the previous day’s practice highlights.
“Everyone gets to see who it was and gets to kind of think back at what plays they made,” said Chisholm, a two-year starter at shortstop. “Each day we talk about the great moments from the day before. It really helps us to keep positive, to keep encouraging our teammates and it kind of brings out a little bit more competitiveness and a kind of fight for that shirt each day just to show that we’re in it and we’re competing with each other just like we will with our opponent. I think everyone’s been enjoying it so far.”
“You just kind of have a motivation to aspire to be better than everybody else,” agreed Jenna Goodrich, a sophomore right-hander who led last year’s team in appearances (33), starts (29), wins (11), innings pitched (195 ⅔), strikeouts (120) and tied for the lead in complete games (20, with junior Emily Anderson). “I think that it’s a cool, friendly competition in a way to get us motivated to give that extra whatever it is, to make us a better player. Those extra reps and that extra time put in, those are really going to help us when it comes postseason.”
Pierannunzi sees the Grit Award serving as that kind of pat on the back really gives players a lift.
“It’s a cool thing. A lot of times recognition isn’t something that you realize that you need, especially when you’re an athlete,” said Pierannunzi, who has started every game the last two years and led last year’s team in runs (40), on-base percentage (.365), stolen bases (15) and fielding percentage (.989). “You’re working hard every day and the expectation is that you produce great work. When you produce great work you don’t necessarily expect recognition for it because that’s the way that you’re wired. So every once in a while, you get that little reminder, ‘Hey, just because the expectation is great work doesn’t mean that it’s not still impressive that that’s what you bring to the table every day.’ So that’s the cool thing about the Grit Award.
“I try to work hard and bring my best to practice every single day and here’s a reminder that ‘We really appreciate it and your teammates see your hard work and they see what you’ve done,’” she added. “All that hard work, this opportunity came in practice and you were able to produce MORE than great work because of all the prep that you’ve put in up until that point. That’s what the Grit Award is all about putting the time in, working hard and when your opportunity comes and you get that shot no one can take it from you. It’s cool and it’s fun. I really like it. I think it’s good for us.”
Hoerner feels this year’s team started off as the best prepared she’s seen at Georgia Tech.
“They worked out hard over the break,” she said. “The commitment was what I expected and what I expect from teams over a break. They put the time in, they held each other accountable, they had accountability partners for when they went to the field over break. I love to see that because it’s not just about the coaches mandating things. It was their teammates having high expectations of that.”
Pierannunzi has no doubt about the commitment of this year’s team. It was obvious during the break.
“[Senior outfielder] Colleen [Darragh] has done a really incredible job of leading this group of girls, especially with as many young ones as we have. She said, ‘When we put in extra time, that’s not necessarily extra. That’s what you have to do. Over break, when you want to sit and relax, you get up and you put in work anyway, that’s you fighting for your team.’”
“Everything that I do is for someone else,” she added. “It’s the culture that you create when you have a really strong group of girls that all work hard for the same passion and all understand even when it’s hard, even when your body hurts, even when you’re tired, even though you have tests, job searching and whatever else you have, everything you can do to contribute to the girls that are around you is what you do and it’s a cool thing to be part of.”