April 26, 2011
By Jon Cooper
The first year of the Post-Jen Yee Era of Georgia Tech Softball is winding down yet, standings-wise, Tech looks very much the same as in the Yee Years.
But this team is different. It’s built more conventionally, with speedy table-setters at the top then the bulk of power in the middle, followed by some slap at the bottom to reset things.
No one better encapsulates the new look like freshman second baseman Ashley Thomas. It’s coincidence that she plays the same position as Yee, and the transition is something that Head Softball Coach Sharon Perkins hasn’t discussed with Thomas.
“We’ve never had that discussion about her having any kind of pressure on her,” said Perkins. “She’s never said it, I’ve never said it. I’m sure there was some pressure as an incoming freshman in a starting position, there’s obviously just the pressure that comes with it but I think she’s handled it really well.”
The McKinney, Texas, native — she shares the same hometown and Yellow Jackets senior pitcher Kristen Adkins, but played at a rival high school — has instead put the pressure on opponents.
When the No. 20 Yellow Jackets (39-8, 13-1 ACC) take Mewborn Field today for a doubleheader against Mercer (26-22, 8-10 in the Atlantic Sun) — first pitch is at 5:00 p.m. — Thomas will bring in a six-game hitting streak, during which she’s hit .435 (10-for-23), scored six runs, driven in two and gone 4-4 in stolen bases.
Thomas has really turned it on in ACC play, where she’s batting .326 (she’s at .295 overall), just seven points behind teammate Kristine Priebe for 10th place in the league. She’s also leading the ACC in stolen bases (11) and attempts (12) in conference play.
Pressure? What pressure?
“I definitely feel a lot more comfortable,” said Thomas of her play within the ACC as opposed to in the early-season non-conference. “I don’t know if it’s a coincidence, but I was having a little trouble seeing the ball before and relaxing at the plate. But now I’m definitely a lot more comfortable and seeing the ball, putting it in play, getting on, which is all that matters.”
Thomas has become a key player in the top of the order, following Thomas as part of Tech’s dynamic 1-2 punch — actually slap — that Perkins has implemented.
“I like that. I think it’s interesting when you have slappers at the top of the lineup, especially back-to-back,” said Perkins. “Christy [Jones] has done a great job this season of finding a way to get on. Then, when you have another slapper behind her, it kind of messes with the defense. It’s tough to cover everything defensively. We can do some different things with it. Then the heart of the order, we have people who can step up and hit the ball hard.”
Last season the two spot was primarily used to move Yee along following her litany of intentional walks. Kate Kuzma did a magnificent job, recording 21 sacrifices. This year’s team is sacrificing nothing.
The Jones-Thomas combo provides blinding speed at the top and allows the heart of the order to a multitude of RBI opportunities. The Jackets have scored 92 runs with 88 RBIs in 14 conference games, both tops in the conference.
In addition, Jones and Thomas have a combined 51 steals, with Jones 29-for-33 and Thomas 22-for-23.
Thomas, who started the season 14-for-14 on steal attempts, credits Perkins, who calls the steals.
“[Coach Perkins] is really smart about telling us when would be a smart pitch to steal,” she said. “Also just knowing how to slide and what kind of slide to do and knowing timing off the pitcher, getting off first base, because if you’re late, it’s really hard to be safe. A lot of it is timing yourself off first base from the pitcher.”
Perkins deflects the credit back to Thomas.
“Just outright speed. You can’t teach speed, speed doesn’t take a day off,” she said. “She has really good timing, she has good instincts, she goes in hard, she has a nice slide, she’s able to read the throw. She’s just outright fast.”
Perkins took a mea culpa for the one time Thomas was caught, in the seventh inning of the April 2 game at Maryland, when sophomore catcher Samantha Mallory gunned her down, 2-6.
Thomas simply gave credit to Mallory.
“That was just the catcher making the perfect throw,” said Thomas. “There’s nothing you can really do about that. It’s really no one’s fault.”
Thomas has responded by successfully swiping her last eight attempts and is enjoying the best base-stealing year she can recall.
“I can’t remember how many I had in high school, but in high school the catchers definitely weren’t as good as they are in college,” said Thomas, who swiped 44 in four years at McKinney. “But it’s definitely the best outcome i’ve had as far as stealing bases, considering it’s the college level. I’m definitely excited about it.”