Feb. 6, 2015
By Jon Cooper
The Good Word
Georgia Tech softball coach Shelly Hoerner will never back down from a fight. She won’t let her team, either. Whether it’s Game One of the season or Game One of an NCAA Tournament Regional, the Yellow Jackets will be ready to rumble.
“In order to be the best you need to play the best,” said Hoerner. “I think us being challenged in the beginning of the season is going to be a good test for this team. This weekend will be a test for us to see where we really are.”
Tech’s second-year head coach (2015 will be her 16th overall) put her money where her mouth is by scheduling her Yellow Jackets to open the season in the FAU Kickoff Classic this weekend in Boca Raton, Fla. They open Friday morning at 11:15, when they take on the Kansas Jayhawks, a program that has won at least 30 games each of the last four seasons. The Jackets tangle with LIU Brooklyn in the afternoon at 1:30. On Saturday, Tech plays Penn State at 3:45 p.m., followed by an 8:15 tussle with the host, also a 30-game winner in 2014. They’ll close things out with an 11:15 a.m. tilt Sunday against SEC offensive powerhouse Arkansas.
Playing five-games in a span of about 50 hours, is a good news-bad news proposition for the Jackets. The bad news, of course, is playing five games in a span of about 50 hours. The good news is Tech will get the opportunity to play and get a look at a lot of people.
Hoerner believes the team has the kind of depth that can handle such a workload and she is eager to see who steps up.
“We’ve talked about competition and competing every day,” she said. “A good thing about our team is that one person steps up one day and another person steps up another day. That actually is a great thing for us as a coaching staff because that means they’re competing and everyone is getting better every day.”
Some spots are set. Hoerner is very happy with the way the infield has worked out. With a pair of seniors first baseman Karly Fullem and third baseman Chelsie Thomas, the Jackets feel they’ve got the corners covered.
“Those two have done a great job of leading this team,” said Hoerner. “Success will follow when you’re doing the right things. These two, Chelsie and Karly have played together for four years and have been best friends. They’ve known each other since they were five. On the corners, they have fun working together, they communicate very well.”
Up the middle, the Jackets return junior Maddie Lionberger, a 2014 All-ACC First-Teamer, at second, while freshman Kelsey Chisholm, a potential All-ACC selection, gets her feet wet anchoring the infield at short.
“They’ve played really well together,” said Hoerner. “Maddie’s hitting is not where it needs to be and not where she wants it to be, but she continues to work at it. Defensively she just continues to get better every day. Her competitiveness is so neat to see and she makes the people around her better. She and Kelsey are definitely competitors and talented athletes that work well together.”
Chisholm drew raves beginning in the fall. That hasn’t changed.
“Kelsey is just a phenomenal athlete,” said Hoerner. “She’s definitely solidified shortstop. She’s obviously very talented and a natural leader. She just goes out and plays. Nothing seems to faze her, she does extra work on a daily basis. She has earned that spot because of her hard work and, obviously, her talent.”
In contrast to the infield, the outfield is a mystery.
“The outfield is up for grabs,” she said. “We are trying to find the best fit for the outfield. All six outfielders have rotated to every position. I think that has really helped as well to make them more competitive. So that’s been interesting.”
Behind the plate, Tech’s 1-2 combo in senior Caitlyn Coffey and junior Courtney Ziese has made the mystery surrounding who will replace Alysha Rudnik much less compelling, a great relief to Hoerner and the staff.
“Caitlyn Coffey and Courtney Ziese have done a very good job behind the plate,” Hoerner said. “Caitlyn Coffey has really taken the leadership behind the plate to replace `Rud.’ She’s taken ownership. Her arm has gotten so much stronger and she’s taken control of the pitchers. With a really young pitching staff overall, she’s very patient with them. She’s a phenomenal catcher. I look for her to be the starting catcher. Courtney Ziese has hit the ball very well and I look for her to be our EP to start the season. There’s no question she has power. She’s improved her mentality as an all-around hitter. She’s done a great job behind the plate.”
Senior Kylie Kleinschmidt is the horse of the staff, with freshmen Emily Anderson, who gave pro team USSSA Pride fits during an offseason exhibition game, and Christina Biggerstaff intent on getting in the circle.
“All three pitchers will pitch a lot,” said Hoerner. “We need to see who can throw in which situation, get their sense of the game. Both of those freshmen are competitive and have improved a lot. Coach Morgan has done a great job with the pitching staff. They believe in themselves and in each other. They all want to be out there, they all want the ball, which is good but they are all supporters of each other. I don’t know exactly what they’re going to pitch but they’re going to pitch a lot. All three of them.”
A lot of the batting order will be something of a game-time decision, but the top appears set, with sophomore Sam Pierannunzi leading off, Thomas hitting second, then Ziese, with any combination of Lionberger, Fullem and Chisholm comprising the heart of the order. The bottom of the order will be determined starting this weekend.
With such a heavy non-conference schedule, it will be up to the eight upperclassmen to show the nine underclassmen the ropes.
Hoerner took the liberty of showing the team the ropes last week, testing their chemistry with a Ropes Course team leadership challenge. She was pleased with the results.
“As coaches, we got to see a different person, not just them on the softball field,” she said. “I was really impressed with the way the team helped and encouraged each other. It really built trust and confidence in each other, which I know will carry over into the season.”
That season starts now.
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