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#TGW: Master Builder

March 31, 2014

By Jon Cooper
The Good Word

NEXT GAME: At Georgia, Wednesday night, 6:00 p.m.

You can’t win softball games if you can’t score runs.

While the home run is an easy way to score runs, “going for the downs” is unreliable and certainly not something of which every player is capable.

A better way to score runs is to manufacture them, something that requires use of speed and the ability to do the little things.

For Georgia Tech (19-11, 8-8, ACC), doing those little things like laying down a sacrifice bunt to move runners over, is the domain of senior centerfielder Hayley Downs, who ranks among the best in the ACC.

It’s all part the way she plays the game.

“You can’t be selfish in a team sport, especially a sport like this one,” said Downs, who is on the way to leading the team in sacrifice hits for the third straight year and is trying to lead the ACC in SH’s for the second straight season. “A lot of my role on the team is setting the table for the power hitters to get that big RBI hit. It’s a role that needs to be done on any team and I love being the person to do it. I think it also speaks that I have somebody on to be able to bunt over and you can’t ask for a better leadoff than Ashley Thomas. She makes my job easy. I just have to move her over and `Rud’ (catcher Alysha Rudnik) hits her in. It’s a pretty good system.

“I would rather give up myself in a bunt situation and let `Rud’ and (first baseman) Karly (Fullem) and those power hitters do what they do best because I’m not going to be the one hitting home runs,” she added. “My role isn’t the most glamorous. It’s not the one that’s going to get the most attention but it’s just a job that needs to get done and I love doing. I have a lot of confidence with it.”

Downs’ ability to fill her role has gotten Head Coach Shelly Hoerner’s attention and earned her coach’s confidence.

“Hayley wants the best for the team and just wants the team to be successful,” said Hoerner. “She has embraced her role. The great thing about her is she truly believes the little things, the sac bunt and advancing runners, is what will help our team most. She doesn’t just talk about it. She truly believes it. She is a spark plug for our team getting excited about those little things. Her excitement and positive energy trickles down to our entire team.”

Downs’ willingness to sacrifice has added up. The ACC leader with 11 sacrifices — one off her career-best — is in the top-10 in school history, as her 36 career sacrifices are fifth all-time, one out of fourth (held by Kirin Kumar, 2002-05), is six away from former teammate Kate Kuzma (2009-12), who sits in third. Heather Sumrow (52, from 1997-2000) and teammate Lauren Schwartz (46, also from 1997-2000) are Tech’s all-time leaders.

“I actually had no idea about that,” said Downs of her place in school history. “I hadn’t really thought about it but that would be cool. I think it’s important to be unselfish and put the team first. So that would be great to be remembered as that type of player because that’s the type of player I try to be every day.”

Downs is having a season to be remembered, as her .366 batting average (ninth in the ACC) and 18 stolen bases (second, four behind Florida State’s Tiffany Brown), make her she the only player in the ACC to rank in the top 10 in batting average, sacrifice hits and stolen bases.

“It’s just a matter of doing the job I’m assigned to do when the time comes for me to do it,” said Downs, a career .307 hitter — although her career average is skewed by a .228 sophomore season. “When it’s time for me to get a hit I don’t try to do too much and I try to get a hit. When it’s time for me to steal a base I just run fast and then, when it’s time for me to get the bunt down I do whatever I can to move Ashley over.”

Downs, who also is a career .972 fielder and is perfect in 2014, feels that playing their roles is a team trait this season.

“I think we’re all starting to take full ownership of our full roles,” she said. “Coach Hoerner and all of her coaching staff have been working with us to help us to identify our roles and take complete ownership of that. So I think it comes down to that, just doing what the team needs me to do.”

Downs will do whatever it takes to get a win Wednesday night, when she makes her final visit to Athens and Jack Turner Stadium, where Georgia (30-5, 6-3, SEC) is 24-1 this season. It’s been a tough place for Yellow Jackets to play, as they have lost five straight there and have won only three times in the last 10 visits. She also is hoping to break the schneid at Turner Stadium and win for only the second time in her career against UGA. Tech has lost four of five in that time. The last two losses were particularly ugly, with Tech losing 14-1 in Atlanta two years ago and 20-1 last year in a five-inning game on the road.

Downs’ last trip to Athens (the teams meet at Mewborn Field on April 16) is Hoerner’s first.

“I am looking forward to it. I haven’t been here long enough but I know it is a huge rivalry,” said the first-year coach. “We have to play every game and prepare for every game like it’s any other game but I think there’s a little more intensity, obviously, from the team. I know it’s a huge rivalry but we’ve got to prepare like it’s any other team. Again, we have to stay within ourselves. We have to stay composed.”

Downs will look to one of the reasons for her success at the plate in approaching this showdown with UGA.

“Don’t try to do too much, stay calm and just get my job done,” she said. “I just do my best and I trust myself and I trust my teammates.”

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