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#TGW: New Season, New Hopes

May 8, 2014

By Jon Cooper

The Good Word

Next Game: Today, 11:00 a.m., No. 8 Georgia Tech vs. No. 1 Florida State, at Maryland Softball Stadium, College Park, Md.

TV: Fox Sports South, ESPN3

Georgia Tech softball isn’t exactly going into this weekend’s ACC Tournament with a full head of steam as they’d hoped.

Take a look at their schedule. They’ve lost 17 of their final 21 games and scored one-or-fewer runs in their last five losses.

Now take that schedule, tear it up and throw it in the trash.

Come 11 a.m. today, it won’t mean a thing. All that will matter is the next seven innings.

“It’s a 0-0 record and anything can happen. That’s all we’ve been talking about this whole week,” said head coach Shelly Hoerner, whose team finished 23-23, 11-17 in ACC play, earning the eighth seed. “They finished up exams last week and from here on it’s all about ball. They just have really had a different mindset. It is all about ball again. It’s about belief and having a lot of heart. Obviously, we’ve got to bring our A-Game. We’ve got to play very well. We’re playing a top team in the country. You go out and give it all you have.”

Top seed and ACC regular-season champion Florida State (47-6, 24-3), which is ranked seventh in the NCAA Women’s Softball RPI and fourth in the ESPN.com/USA Softball and USA Today/NFCA Coaches polls, presents the herculean challenge for Tech. The Seminoles have lost only twice in 28 games since March 12 and are 21-1 in conference play in that run. That stretch includes final-week sweep of the Yellow Jackets, in which they allowed one run the entire series and none over the final 17 innings.

While Hoerner has tremendous respect for the Seminoles — their head coach, Lonni Alameda was her college coach — she isn’t about conceding anything and sees the timing of the series in Tallahassee as advantageous.

“They’re fresh in our minds,” she said. “I think it is an advantage because we know exactly how they’re playing right now. Obviously, we didn’t get the outcome that we wanted but we played well against them.”

Beating FSU will likely mean beating pitcher Lacey Waldrop. The junior, who led the ACC in wins (31), ERA (0.86), opposing batting average (.171), and strikeouts (243), allowed one run in 9 2/3 innings over two games in the series against the Jackets, including a complete-game four-hitter in the opener, striking out 14, while walking six. Hoerner believes a lot can be learned from her dominance in that final series.

“Lacey is just the top pitcher in the country but since we just saw her we know where she’s at in this season,” she said. “She’s pitching very well. Obviously, she’s pitched well the whole season. We saw her play a little bit in the series, so that’s a good thing for us.”

The Jackets will counter with their ace, junior Kylie Kleinschmidt, (15-12, 2.71 ERA) against a Seminoles offense that led the ACC in runs scored and had three of its top four top run-scorers. The biggest threat is redshirt junior shortstop Maddie O’Brien, who led the ACC in slugging, on-base percentage, homers, RBI, and total bases, and was second in batting average, hits and doubles.

Kleinschmidt, who chopped nearly four runs off her 2013 ERA, struggled against the Noles in her lone start (4.0 IP, 3 hits, 3 earned runs, 5 walks, 2 strikeouts), but Hoerner believes she has the right mental make-up to excel in her first postseason start.

“Her confidence is very high,” said Hoerner. “She’s had a great year and she continues to learn and that’s what makes me so proud of her. She’s very determined. Her mindset is ‘We’re going there to win the ACC Tournament’ and she knows it starts with her. Pitchers set the tone.”

Offensively, the Jackets will be counting on their senior trio of shortstop Ashley Thomas, who finished seventh in the ACC in hitting (.385) and fourth in on-base percentage (.486), center fielder Hayley Downs, who was fourth in stolen bases (20) and tied for first in sac bunts (15), and catcher Alysha Rudnik, who was ninth in slugging (.651) to come up big this time against FSU. The trio, who bat 1-2-3 in the Jackets order, went 3-for-28 in the series, with each managing one hit and Rudnik scoring Tech’s only run in the series.

Hoerner believes the trio’s experience will come to the forefront with the heat on.

“Ashley, ‘Rud,’ and Hayley, the experience that they’ve had, you can’t compare that to anybody else on the team,” she said. “They’ve been great leaders. The big thing is, when it comes down to postseason play in conference tournaments, it’s all about experience.”

They’ve showed they can come up big against the best, as in 10 games against ranked teams, Rudnik has hit .321, with a .643 slugging percentage, with nine hits, seven RBIs and five runs scored, while Thomas has seven hits, including two homers, and has scored seven times.

Freshman outfielder Samantha Pierannunzi is worth a watch. She finished the season batting .365, behind only Thomas, and slugging .619, behind only Rudnik. Pierannunzi’s .375 batting average in ACC play was third on the Jackets behind Maddie Lionberger’s team-high .409 and Thomas’ .378, while her .688 slugging percentage led the team.

“As a freshman Sam has been doing well,” said Hoerner. “It’s a little different when you haven’t been there before but she has no fear. I think the freshmen have no fear, which is always a good thing but the seniors, the upperclassmen have the experience and that’s going to be key for our success.”

The senior class was part of the 2012 ACC Tournament champions, which beat FSU, and Waldrop, on the way to their third Tournament title in four years.

But maybe more important to this group is the year they didn’t win it.

That was 2011, the freshman year for Thomas, Downs and Rudnik. That season, the Jackets, who were two-time ACC regular season and tournament champions, finished 18-2, winning the ACC regular season again and, as hosts were overwhelming favorites to win the Tournament again.

But something happened in the tournament opener against No. 8 Virginia. Something this Jackets team should take note of.

Georgia Tech had stomped the Cavaliers in Charlottesville during an April 23 double-header, winning by a combined 17-2 margin. In the Tournament, however, a hot pitcher, Melanie Mitchell, who was hit hard in the double-header, limited the Jackets to four hits and the Cavs pulled off a 6-0 upset.

That little bit of history is disappointing to the seniors but it’s probably been brought up as the Jackets loaded up their slingshot for their David vs. Goliath match-up with FSU.

“Anything can happen. That’s why you play,” said Hoerner. “I said to the team, we saw it in men’s basketball and in women’s basketball that there are so many upsets in the NCAA Tournament. So we’re excited to go. It’s a new season for us, time to play our best ball.”

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