June 11, 2014
By Jon Cooper
The Good Word
Ashley Thomas has a one-track mind these days — all softball all the time.
That means that she’s in the right place being in Akron, Ohio, as the starting second baseman for the Akron Racers of National Pro Fastpitch (NPF).
“In the Pro League it’s all about softball. That’s all we train for, that’s all we think about. That’s what we’re here for,” said Thomas, a four-year starter for the Jackets and 2013 ACC Player of the Year, who was selected by the Racers with the 16th pick in the 2014 Draft. “That’s pretty much how I’ve always thought. Softball mainly, but you still had school and everything. But here, it’s all softball and I personally love that.”
In only eight games (the Racers are 3-5) Thomas has given Racers fans a lot to love.
She’s hit in six of those games and, heads into action tonight riding a four-game hitting streak, during which she’s batting .462 (6-for-13). In the Racers’ most recent game, Tuesday night against the Chicago Bandits, Thomas had two hits (her second multi-hit game in three), including a game-tying two-run double in the bottom of the sixth. She’d score what would prove to be the game-winning run when the next batter singled to right.
Thomas’ current streak has helped her raise her batting average to .333 (third among regulars on the team), and raise her OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging) to .833 (fourth among Racers regulars). That rise statistically mirrors the rise in her relaxation level in adapting to being a rookie playing in the four-team league with some of the best players in the world.
“I feel a lot more relaxed,” she said, admitting that having played the Bandits all eight games also has helped. “We’ve seen all their pitchers, except for [former University of Tennessee star] Monica Abbott, who will be there soon. So you start to get a feel after you’ve seen a pitcher so much. I’m a lot more relaxed at the plate, seeing how I’ve hit off of a few of them. That relaxes you because you know you can do it.”
Then there is the family feel around the team, as Thomas has been reunited with fellow McKinney, Texas, native, McKinney High School teammate and best friend Jenny Gilbert.
“It’s great!” Thomas said. “It’s like having a sister here. I couldn’t have asked for it to work out any more perfectly. I just feel super-blessed having [Gilbert] here. It’s definitely helped with the process of getting used to a new environment, new teammates. It’s helped with all of that.”
“It’s definitely different going from player-coach relationship to teammate-type of relationship,” she said. “They’ve both been great in welcoming me in. They’ve both been in the league for quite some time. They have nothing but great advice for me and I’m just trying to soak everything in. It’s great having them as teammates. They’re both awesome ball players. I’ll take them on my team any day.”
Locally, the Akron fan base has been very supportive of Thomas, the sixth Yellow Jacket alum to play with the team.
“I’ve had a lot of fans come up and tell me, ‘We’re really happy to get a Georgia Tech player in here to balance out all the Georgia players,’” she said with a laugh (outfielder Taylor Schlopy is UGA’s lone representative on the current squad). “They love having a Georgia Tech player representing. One guy came up to me, he said he buys a jersey from every college that we come from and he’s already bought a Georgia Tech jersey after he heard that I was on the team. They’ve been awesome.”
Thomas has enjoyed going back and forth to Chicago to play the Bandits. While she’d never been to “The Windy City” prior to joining the Racers, going to Chicago actually is a homecoming of sorts for her.
“My mom and dad are from Illinois and my dad is from Chicago so it’s definitely cool being close to where they’re from,” she said. “I’ve always heard Chicago is a great city. From what I saw it was. They have so many great restaurants and then, just the scenery, it was a beautiful city and the field in Chicago is beautiful also.”
While she enjoyed seeing Chicago, against whom she had her first hit (a bunt single in her second at-bat on May 29) and home run (on May 31st) Thomas is eager to see the league’s other two teams, the first-place USSSA Pride (6-2) and last-place PA Rebellion (2-6). She’ll get a real good look at both, as the Racers’ next 12 games are against them (eight vs. the Rebellion, all at home and four in Dallas at the Pride).
But really, the game could be at Akron Racers Firestone Stadium, in Rosemont, Ill., in Washington, Pa. (the home of the Rebellion), or Orlando, Fla. (the home of the Pride), she doesn’t care. Just tell her where to show up. No distance is too far.
“Traveling, I love it,” she said, with a laugh. “The five-, six-hour bus rides, it makes it a lot easier knowing that you’re going to go play another professional team because you’re a pro. It makes it way easier.”
Thomas is as easy-going about where she hits — she led off Akron’s first four games, batted eighth the next three and ninth the last game — and fields — she’s playing second base, where she played as a freshman at Georgia Tech, successfully handling 20 of 21 chances (a .952 fielding percentage). She has bigger goals in mind.
“Honestly, wherever they want to put me, as long as I’m playing I’m happy,” she said. “They want a championship here. I want to make an impact and help us.
“I want to help the Pro League get out there and give more people knowledge about the Pro League and hopefully build the fan base,” she added. “I’d definitely like to get more people talking about the Pro League and get more people on board with us.”
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