By Jack Williams
When Georgia Tech was screening candidates for a new softball coach two and a half years ago, the general opinion was that assistant Coach Kate Madden, just 23 years of age at the time, would not get to first base.
Madden fooled them, by golly. She hit a home run.
And here’s the most interesting thing about it all: the big reason Madden got the job at such a young age was the overwhelming support she received from the players on the Tech team. For goodness sakes, how many times do you hear these days of players helping pick a new college coach?
Tech Director of Athletics Dave Braine says that’s the way it happened. “After Kate’s year as an assistant, the kids responded to her and wanted her to be head coach.” he said. “And I agreed. Age was never a factor.”
Madden has proved the players right in her first two seasons at the helm with a program that shows great promise. Now, she and her players turn their attention to the new campaign, which opens Saturday against Georgia Southern at 1 p.m., the first of six straight road tests. The first home game is Feb. 24 against Troy State.
“The age thing has never been a problem even though I was only two years older than some of the players when I was named head coach,” Madden said. “I had established a relationship with the players as an assistant and had already started to gain their respect. When I became head coach, I made sure that I drew the line between player and coach and showed authority from the start.”
Madden’s first two teams have not produced winning records, but the foundation has been laid for a successful program. This year’s freshman class is, without a doubt, the most talented Tech has had in softball.
Madden’s goals really are quite simple.
“We want to compete at the regional level and hopefully at the national level,” she said. “But our first goal is to move to the top of the Atlantic Coast Conference.”
Madden hopes the Jackets can take some giant steps in that direction this season.
“Florida State and North Carolina are both very good,” she said. “Fast pitch softball is all about pitching and those two teams have really outstanding pitchers. Virginia, Maryland and Georgia Tech are all right here (about even) in my opinion. It is important we do well against Virginia and Maryland if we want to move up the ladder.”
Madden will look to the team’s veterans for leadership and says she is getting it from a number of seniors. One of the best seniors is second baseman Ellen Styer, whom Madden says has been “instrumental in our defense, the best player on defense.”
Madden also is high on senior outfielder Jennifer Biggers, who came to the team as a walk-on and has developed into a top-notch hitter.
The coach does, indeed, glow when she talks about her most recent recruiting class. Some of the leading freshmen are shortstop Tara Knudsen, pitcher Erin Voeltz, catcher Tasha Waugh and outfielders Sara Wissmann and Soraya Reddick.
“Tara gives us a natural shortstop for the first time,” Madden says. “We have had people playing out-of-position there before. Erin is a pitcher with great movement who will definitely be in our starting rotation. Soraya and Sara give us good foot-speed in the outfield.”
Perhaps the most talked-about newcomer is Waugh who drew much attention when she hit a grand slam home run on the first pitch in her first time at bat in a Tech game last fall against Young Harris College.
The Tech lineup would really be potent if Madden, her top assistant coach Sara Graziano and Madden’s younger sister Sarah, a volunteer assistant, could suit up for games. All three coaches have proved their mettle as star players on the college level and Madden and Graziano also have sparkled in professional ranks.
In fact, Graziano still plays professionally at first base for the Tampa Bay Firestix, the team that last season won the league championship. Graziano, a former Academic All-America of the Year at Coastal Carolina, joins the Tampa Bay team each spring after the Tech season is complete.
Madden and Graziano formerly were teammates on the Durham (N.C.) Dragons of the professional league. Madden was a pitcher and infielder at Durham. As leadoff batter, she finished second in the league race for the batting title with a .343 average.
Her sister Sarah recently completed her college career at Southwest Missouri, the same school that Kate attended.
A native of Chicago, Ill., who grew up in Aurora, Colo., Kate Madden has played softball since she was eight years old. She also competed in track as a long jumper and in basketball while in high school.
She went on to a fabulous career as a collegiate player at Southwest Missouri State. She was Missouri Valley Player of the Year in 1996 and led the team to the conference championship and a berth in the NCAA Tournament.
Madden credits her college coaches, Holly Hesse, Beth Perine and Sue Frederick, with steering her in the right direction. “Those three, especially Coach Hesse, made me the player I was and also the coach I am early in this career,” she said.
Kate came to Tech as Regina Tomaselli’s assistant in 1998, having been recommended by Perine of the Southwest Missouri staff. Madden had suffered a number of injuries with the Durham pro team, but still planned to play there until the call came from Tech.
“When I came to Georgia Tech, I was about halfway sure I wanted to coach,” she said. “Once I got started, I knew this was exactly what I wanted to do and where I wanted to be.”
Madden says the head job at Georgia Tech is a dream position. “I do not take my position here for granted,” she said. “I am extremely proud to be a coach at a school like Georgia Tech with a great athletic tradition. The job here is huge.”
The Tech coach does still take swings at the plate in her spare time. She suits up as a shortstop in a slow-pitch summer league in Cobb County. It is interesting to note that most of the shortstops in that league are men.
Madden, however, saves most of her drive for the coaching assignment at Georgia Tech where she and the Yellow Jackets are swinging for the fences and shooting for the stars.