The Good Word | by Jon Cooper
Every program has special days, defining days.
March 10, 2009, is one such day for Georgia Tech softball.
That day was more than just the home-opening double-header for the 2009 season. It was the home-opening of a new era. The Shirley Clements Mewborn Field era.
After 22 years at Glenn Field, the Yellow Jackets would have a new home.
They have thrived in it, putting up a 168-103 record, a .620 winning percentage, heading into this weekend’s series with Duke. That, alone, would be enough to celebrate.
But Saturday’s commemoration of Mewborn Field is about so much more than recognizing that this is a place where the Yellow Jackets have played some really good softball and won a lot of games.
After all, they were doing that at Glenn Field, where they’d recorded their first three 50-win seasons, doing so in a six-year span (2002-07).
The opening of Mewborn Field was more. It was a statement. A statement that proudly announced Georgia Tech had arrived as program determined to achieve ACC championships and compete for NCAA championships and was here to stay. They finally had a facility that represented that.
Legendary former AJC sportswriter Jack Wilkinson painted the perfect picture.
“On a hillock that was once a playing field at old O’Keefe High, later a Georgia Tech intramural and club sports field, and which most recently served as prime parking for Tech basketball games, that lot is going, going, gone. In its place stands a brand-new, fast-pitch palace that’s already softball paradise.”
The Yellow Jackets players felt it.
“It’s cool now thinking about it. I can still remember being in that moment,” said head coach Aileen Morales, who was a student-assistant coach in 2009, her first year after graduation. “Obviously, the first thing, with anybody, it’s like, ‘Man, I wish I would have gotten to play on that field. But you take pride and ownership of the fact that ‘We helped lay the foundation for that field to be built,’ because we had successful teams.”
“When you roll up to Mewborn Field it’s like, ‘Wow! This is what power five facilities should be.’” Morales added. “The backdrop is beautiful; the surface is amazing. I think it’s the best outfield grass in the country still to this day. I just remember being really, really proud to be able to say that I was a part of that program. To this day, every time I walk out there and get to basically go to the office every day on that field, it just makes me really proud.”
Tiffany Johnson, the Jackets’ starting pitcher in the first game of the twin-bill with UT Martin and the recipient of the field’s first ‘W’ — a complete-game three-hit masterpiece in the 2-1 thriller that also was then-head coach Sharon Perkins’ 100th — doesn’t even need to enter the field to still feel the pride of Mewborn. All she needs to see are the images of Jackets legends Jessica Sallinger, Tara Knudsen, Laura Williams and teammates Morales, Caitlin Lever, Jen Yee and Kelsi Weseman that adorn the outside.
“Every time I go to the new field it’s like, ‘This is amazing!’” said Johnson, who now resides in Florida but will be in attendance Saturday and throw out the honorary first pitch. “The posters, seeing my old teammates, some of the girls I didn’t play with but I love them, too. To see their faces in front of the stadium, That’s a beautiful thing.”
The history and pride in the field goes beyond softball. It can be found in the name honoring the stadium. Shirley Clements Mewborn was one of the first two women ever to graduate Georgia Tech, earning her degree in electrical engineering as part of the class of 1956. Unfortunately, she would not get to see the field, as she passed away in 2003.
The players that did get to see the opening were proud to take the field that honors her memory. For them, it was worth the wait.
“The promises soon turned into chances of ‘Next year, next year.’ The promises have now become a reality,” said then-senior Whitney Haller in the pregame ceremony, as reported by Wilkinson. “And what a reality!”
And what a statement. The impact of having a first-class facility, that came with an estimated $4.9 million price tag, was felt throughout the softball world and immediately.
“We got an amazing facility in 2009 and in 2009 we hosted a regional and ended up hosting a super regional. We would have never been able to do that at Glenn Field. There’s just no way,” said Morales, who laughed recalling the luxury of lights at Mewborn, something Glenn never had. “Then in 2010, we hosted a regional again and we were a top national seed. The facility opened up the door for Georgia Tech Softball to be in the national conversation because we were hosting a regional and we were on ESPN. That had never happened before. That was part of why we had those runs there in ‘09, ‘10, ‘12. I think all of that played into the facility opening and having this just amazing space to play softball and be able to bring quality opponents in.”
“The field did give us that boost in the ACC because I think a lot of teams didn’t take Georgia Tech seriously,” said Johnson. “‘Oh, they’re a good team.’ ‘No, we’re a great team. And we can compete with the best.’ We didn’t have a state-of-the art field before then, but we’re here now.’”
Over the first four years at Mewborn, Perkins’ juggernaut went 179-61 (a .746 winning percentage), won the ACC regular season championship three times, and the ACC Tournament three times, taking both in ‘09 and ’10.
“That year was a magical period,” Johnson said. “I remember one practice, they turned the lights on and we had batting practice. I was pitching B.P. Just how the ball was coming off the bat and seeing the field and knowing that, ‘This is ours….’
“We had something to play for and play behind and play with dignity,” said Johnson. “Especially when we played on our field,” she added. “We won a lot on that field. That year we went to the regionals and super regionals and we played on our home field. Even though we got beat in the super regionals (by eventual national champion Washington), that was a magical year. We made a mark in Georgia Tech history and I feel like the field had a lot to do with it.”
The 2019 Yellow Jackets will look to make their mark and create some magic of their own. Morales is counting on her teams to continue upholding that tradition of home success and do it the way she did.
“It’s a sense of pride,” she said. “Like, ‘Wow, we have this beautiful new facility and we want to defend it. We want to have great games on that field and protect our home field.’