March 9, 2017
By Jon Cooper
The Good Word
When you have a team as young as Georgia Tech softball, with 10 true freshmen on its 21-woman roster, a popular rallying cry can be the defiant “Youth will be served!”
Running counter to that thought, however, is there’s no accounting for WHAT that youth will be served.
Veteran teams will serve doses of experience and guile that can only be learned by the experience of going through it. The 2017 freshmen have gone through it quite a bit during the 2017 season by more veteran teams. They’ll host another of these veteran teams this weekend when Notre Dame comes to town for a weekend series for a Saturday twin bill at 1 and 3 p.m. then Sunday at noon.
“I don’t think that people realize that it’s a different level when you get to the college game and you have to work even harder than you did before,” said head coach Shelly Hoerner. “I expect a lot from this class and they’ve got work to do to get to where we want to be in the ACC and on the national level.
“There are glimpses of good things with this class and then there are glimpses of not-so-good things, but that’s all learning curve with freshmen,” she added. “Again, you’re expecting freshmen to come in and do things right away. Well, it is a learning curve because the pitching that they see here is very different. The ball moves more and it’s just more mental and between the ears. We’ve seen really good pitching this year and we’ve just got to continue to work and make adjustments.”
In their most recent game Wednesday, March 8, the Jackets started only one of their freshmen, in DH Drew Puckett, but saw three more, catcher Rebecca Prairie, pitcher Brooke Barfield and 1B/OF Crosby Huckabay come in, with Prairie smacking her first collegiate home run as a pinch-hitter in the fifth.
Hoerner knows all about the growing pains her youngsters are going through and is proud of the grit and effort they’ve shown just to get on the field. In fact, heading into this weekend, Prairie and starting right fielder Karissa Arnold, who did not play on Wednesday’s midweek game, have 15, and 13 starts, while Barfield is tied for the team lead in appearances (12, tied with sophomore Jenna Goodrich).
“We have a large roster and you have to fight every day for a position and they are seeing time but that’s the expectation of what I brought in. If they earn it they’re going to play,” said Hoerner. “Drew, giving her the start at DP, she had a .471 on-base percentage. She’s getting on base. She deserved that start at DP.”
The kids are alright. They aren’t intimidated and are getting braver with each game.
“I think we are definitely getting better every game,” said Puckett, a Buford, Ga., native and Buford High School star. “I think our class is very talented. I think we have a lot of girls who are ready to work and put in the work, and I feel like we’re ready for whatever comes at us.”
“It was definitely a learning curve from the beginning, bonding with everyone, learning how they play and how we play,” said Arnold, a San Diego, Calif., native (Temecula Valley High School), who leads Jackets first-year players with a .265 batting average and a pair of multi-hit games and has the second-longest freshman hitting streak (three games). “But I think we’ve definitely come together. It’s really starting to show.”
Prairie believes that it will show even more down the road as they grow together.
“I think that’s going to help us in the long run,” said Prairie, a Valdosta native (Lowndes County High School), who also has a three-game hit streak to her credit. “Brooke [Barfield], she’s coming in and she’s doing the best that she can and she’s killing it. That goes back to confidence. For a freshman I think the biggest thing is just every time you go out on the field, every time you set foot in the dugout you have to be confident or you’re not going to perform to your best ability.”
Barfield points to the team’s energy level as a key to raising their level of play.
“We’ve learned that energy is what we need,” said Barfield, who took the loss Wednesday, but has been a workhorse on the staff — leading the team in appearances (with Goodrich), innings (48.2), complete games (5), and has the team’s lone save. “I think that every game we’re increasing our energy just by a little bit and that’s going to take us a long way in the end. [Wednesday night] I felt like even though it wasn’t the greatest of games we had a lot of energy throughout. We weren’t ever down.”
Barfield also believes familiarity in playing with each other also will pay off.
“For me being a freshman, I think it’s a lot of good experience,” said the Pembroke, Ga. (Bryan County High School) native. “Even if it’s not the best outcome I think it’s giving the team more of a chance to get to know me as a pitcher and me to know them as a defense, and get more experience and learn more from it.”
The Jackets are learning about the ACC and how rugged the road can be. But they’re showing no sign of backing down to the challenge.
“I expected (ACC play) to be hard,” said Huckabay, a Chattanooga, Tenn., native (Baylor School). “But being here and actually playing I realize I can handle it and all of the freshmen can handle it. We can play against a North Carolina or a Virginia Tech and we can, as freshmen, hang in there and actually be in it. I think that’s really been kind of awesome for us to learn.”
“It’s just a new world from playing high school and travel ball,” said Barfield. “You have to be on your game every pitch. You can’t take a pitch off. We just need to have fun and have more energy.”
Hoerner is very patient and knows that you simply can’t rush gaining experience. She does hope, however, that these freshmen can pick things up on the field just a little bit faster.
“Again, it’s a learning curve for these freshmen but I think they’re doing a fairly good job,” she said. “We’ve got to get better overall as hitters. We’ve gotten better but it’s not to where we need to be. As freshmen they have to be more students of the game, making adjustments at-bat to at-bat. That’s what it comes down to.”