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#TGW: Rounding First

Feb. 12, 2014

By Jon Cooper
The Good Word

It’s a long journey from February to May, but a first-year Georgia Tech softball coach Shelly Hoerner and her team took a positive first step over the weekend.

Their series win over Missouri State saw a lot of firsts and, ideally, answers to some questions that need answering if the Yellow Jackets are to regain their place among ACC powers.

“Definitely good and bad,” assessed Hoerner, whose team split the opening day doubleheader, winning 3-0, losing 6-3, then took Sunday’s series finale, 7-1.

Among the most pressing questions Tech faced was on the mound. The tandem of junior Kylie Kleinschmidt and freshman Kanani Cabrales proved to be a good answer.

Kleinschmidt stated her case as the ace at the top of the rotation. She allowed one run in 14 innings, including throwing her first career complete-game shutout, a four-hit gem in Saturday’s season opener.

“I felt a little nervous, of course, first-game jitters but once you settle in, I knew defense was behind me, I knew the coaches were on my side,” said the junior, who was 13-16, with a 5.85 ERA over her first two seasons.

Kleinschmidt responded to her jitters by striking out the first four batters she faced. She struck out six in the game while walking one, and, most important, holding the Bears scoreless until Tech’s offense could come through. The biggest sequence came in the sixth inning, when State loaded the bases with one out.

She showed her poise by inducing a ground ball to third baseman Chelsie Thomas, who threw home to catcher Alysha Rudnik to get the lead runner at the plate. Rudnik then gunned a throw to first baseman Karly Fullem to complete the 5-2-3, inning-ending double play, keeping the game scoreless

“That was [Assistant] Coach [Charlotte] Morgan and trusting my pitches,” said Kleinschmidt. “Then I knew if it was hit to my defense they were going to handle it. I knew it was a double play. We’ve practiced that a lot and I knew Chelsie and `Rud’ and Karly could all handle that play.”

“That was the momentum swing,” said Hoerner. “That momentum swing was just huge. It started with the defensive play and they took it into the offensive side so that was great.”

Following the twin-killing, Tech answered with three runs, and Kleinschmidt retired the side in order in the seventh to complete her historic win.

She was as tough on Sunday, allowing a first-inning run, but little else thereafter, as Tech’s six-run fourth put the game away.

“She’s finding her way and leading this pitching staff,” said Hoerner. “She was a little inconsistent throughout the game but she found a way and we did it together team, which is our motto for the year. Our offense helped her and defense helped her as well. You fight through things and you battle and that’s what she did.”

Cabrales didn’t get a win, dropping Saturday’s nightcap, 6-3, but she was impressive, nonetheless. Of the six runs she allowed, only one was earned, as Tech made three errors behind her.

“‘Nani’ did a good job,” said Hoerner. “We definitely didn’t help her defensively or offensively, for that matter. We’ve got to play clean defense. That’s the bottom line. Then when we have clutch situations, runners in scoring position, and we didn’t put the ball in play, that can’t happen.”

“I feel like my first collegiate game was a whole new learning experience,” said Cabrales, who allowed 11 hits, striking out four and walking two. “I will work on keeping the ball down. A lot of the hits that they got was when I was keeping the ball up above their knee.”

Another key question was how Ashley Thomas would follow her junior season, when she was ACC Player of the Year. Thomas answered the call, in a big way, one that might have been surprising based on years past.

Thomas came into Saturday’s game at Mewborn Field with two career home runs. She left Saturday with four, one in each game, and with a pair of multi-hit games.

The first homer came in the first game leading off the bottom of the sixth inning after the 5-2-3 double play. The blast to left-center broke the scoreless tie and sparked a three-run outburst.

Her homer in the second game came leading off the bottom of the third, sparking another three-run inning, this one following a four-run third by Missouri State.

“We have been working more on my power,” said Thomas, who had last homered on March 4, 2012. “We’ve been working on my lower half more, Charlotte has been a big help with that, as well as Coach Jake [Jury]. He’s been helping me out a ton with my power and the lower half of my swing.”

Thomas had a pair of multi-hit games on Saturday, and added another hit on Sunday, to conclude the series batting .556.

Tech had its difficulties defensively, committing five errors, one in each game, with three in the second game Saturday, but Thomas believes won’t continue.

“Our defense is better than that,” said Thomas. “All of us know it.”

Hoerner knows she liked the Jackets’ tenacity and fight.

Tech started slowly offensively in all three games, falling behind in two of them, but stuck around in all of them, twice finding a way to win and getting one of their best hitters, Alysha Rudnik, an at-bat as the tying run in the other.

“This team just fights,” said Hoerner. “They’re fighters and we have to continue doing that. We never give up, bottom line, and we do it together as a team. “

They’re also getting production from different people, as junior Caitlyn Coffey had a big two-run single in Saturday’s first-game rally, while junior Karly Fullem went deep to spark Sunday’s six-run rally, and senior centerfielder Hayley Downs went 3-for-3, with a run and an RBI.

Downs’ RBI especially impressed Hoerner.

“This team is relentless,” she said. “I’m proud of the girls to have made adjustments and come through in clutch situations. We were up by five runs but we didn’t stop.”

About the only thing that can stop the Jackets is the weather, as the team was unable to fly out to Arizona to participate in this weekend’s Hillenbrand Invitational.

Instead, they’ll stay home and work out the kinds in preparation for next weekend’s Georgia Tech-Kennesaw State Invite against Stony Brook, Tulsa and Georgia State.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do but the team is open for making adjustments, and that’s what it’s all about because this is a game of adjustments,” said Hoerner. “We have to stay focused and we have to work harder than we’ve ever worked to achieve our goals.”

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