March 17, 2017
By Jon Cooper
The Good Word
As with so many things, if you have and follow a plan, good things, sometimes things you wouldn’t expect, happen.
Georgia Tech softball hitters are learning that with the result being a deluge of home runs they’ve been hitting in 2017.
The Yellow Jackets implementing the philosophy of aptly named first-year hitting coach, Rodney DeLong, has had the residual — and unexpected — effect of making the long ball a very welcome weapon.
“It’s ‘Hit the ball hard and good things will happen,” said senior centerfielder Sam Pierannunzi, whose six home runs lead the Jackets parade and tie for third in the ACC. “We’re keeping things real simple and I think that’s pretty cool.”
The Jackets will try to continue to keep it simple and get plenty of nice jogs around the bases during this weekend’s series against Syracuse at Mewborn Field, beginning today at 6 p.m. (Saturday’s game is at 1 p.m. and Sunday’s finale begins at noon). With nine homers in its last five games, GT ranks third in the ACC with 26 round-trippers through 24 games.
(By the way, The Orange also bring a home run threat of their own in espnW National Player of the Week, senior Sydney O’Hara, who has six homers on the year, including an NCAA-record-tying four in one game — in four plate appearances — last week at NC State).
Last season after 24 games they had 11.
Just the way the coaches drew it up, right?
“Absolutely not! I’ve never, in my 20 years of coaching, preached the long ball, nor has Coach DeLong,” said head coach Shelly Hoerner. “He talks about gap-to-gap hitting. We’re seeing the ball better, we’re making better contact, we’re driving the ball and I really think that’s what’s leading to the long ball.”
It all comes down to one word for DeLong.
“Backspin,” he said. “We try to be palm-up. We try to hit the middle-bottom part of the ball. With today’s technology and today’s female athletes, they’re better athletes than they were 30 years ago and so we try to hit the ball to the big part of the field, we try to hit the ball with backspin because the ball carries.”
It’s been carrying quite well at Mewborn and wherever Tech has been. The Jackets have eight different players with a home run, five with at least three. Last season at this point, they had five and two.
“I think that power surge comes from the fact that Coach D. hasn’t changed our swings. He’s more in approach and understanding of what the pitcher’s throwing,” said junior shortstop Kelsey Chisholm, who has a career-best five homers this season, tied for seventh in the conference and only two behind her career total entering 2017. “That’s helped with our mindset and also helps with just allowing us to see the ball better during our at-bats. We’re seeing the ball really well right now and we are trusting everything that we’ve been doing in practice.”
“Coach D.’s teaching us to hit to the big parts, so right-center, left-center, using the middle of the field. I think that equates to hitting the ball where you want it to be, letting it get deeper into the zone,” said senior outfielder Colleen Darragh, who matched her career SEASON high last weekend against Notre Dame, blasting three homers. “It’s not so much that we’re lifting heavier or we’re eating all this junk food to get power behind the ball. It’s more about mechanics and trusting our swing and knowing that whatever the pitch is, we can hit it to where we want.”
Treating the group of hitters as individuals also has been a factor in DeLong’s success.
“He tries not cookie-cut our swings. He really concentrates on each player and what her strengths are,” said senior second baseman Jessica Kowalewicz, who has a career-high four homers this season and 10 for her career. “I think this year we’re just more comfortable. Last year we made a lot of different adjustments within a single game and we couldn’t get comfortable. This year we’re sticking to an approach. If we need to in a game we’ll make a slight adjustment but overall we’re doing the same thing over and over again so we can be consistent.
“I know none of us are intentionally trying to just ‘Drop and lift and hit the ball over the wall but it’s definitely nice,’” she added. “I think a lot of people are just having quality at-bats. They’re trying to do the most with the situations they’re in and everyone wants to produce for our team and produce for our pitchers.”
Georgia Tech has proved dangerous early — they’ve hit nine homers in the first inning — and late — they’ve hit six in the sixth, three in extra innings — and it can come from anywhere as eight players have gone yard, six of them more than once.
While built more for lightning, lead-off hitter Pierannunzi has provided much of the early thunder, having homered four times leading off games. She loves giving teams fits that way.
“There’s nothing, I would say, more frustrating for a team than when you go up to face the very first hitter and they hit one out. Right off the bat here you’re at a deficit,” said Pierannunzi, whose six dingers are one fewer than she had all last season. “When I go up, I’m trying to get on base so that my team can push me over. But it’s kind of fun to go back in the dugout and say, ‘There’s nothing that she’s going to throw to any of you that you can’t handle and that’s proof.’”
That spark can easily become a bonfire.
“I definitely think hitting is contagious during games,” said junior third baseman Malea Bell, yet another Jacket having a career season, with four homers in 2017 after connecting once her first three seasons. “Normally, if the first three people have really great quality at-bats it continues throughout the lineup, as we saw in this past weekend’s games. It gets everyone excited, it gets everyone up. No one’s nervous at the plate and everyone’s very confident in their swings.”
It works abnormally, too, as also proven last weekend against Notre Dame. With the top of the order relatively held in check, the Jackets got big hits from the bench. No one was bigger than Darragh, who went 4-for-8, with three homers and five RBI. Three of her four hits left the yard, including a walk-off winner in the ninth of the series opener, a game she entered in the sixth inning. She’d add a pair of two-run shots in the finale.
“That was pretty crazy,” she said. “All I was really trying to focus on was helping the pitchers out. ‘I have my opportunity and I’m going to try to do anything I can.’ I was trying to get on base, trying to pass the bat down to whoever was behind me, trying to generate runs for the pitchers.”
“We had good production from the bench, which is huge,” said Hoerner. “When they were called upon they took the opportunity and they made things happen. It was a fun weekend, lots of energy, lots of chemistry, everybody was into it for the same reason.”
Pierannunzi feels the team is right where it should be, just as DeLong predicted.
“Coach D. said to us, ‘When you get to your 30-at-bat mark that’s when you’re going to take off. I think our team is right on track with that,” she said. “So if we stick to our plan, stay confident in ourselves, I think that we’re going to surprise a lot of people. We’re going to do some really, really cool things in our conference. I’m really looking forward to watching this team get to that.”
Tech fans should look forward to watching it as well, especially against quality arms like Syracuse can bring. The Orange come to The Mew third in the ACC in fewest runs (73), and homers allowed (7 — one more than Tech had last weekend) and fourth in ERA (2.50).