Despite Tech coming off a disappointing 25-30 (10-10 ACC) season, which resulted in the termination of head coach Sharon Perkins, and finishing in the bottom half of the ACC standings, there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the start of the softball team’s 2014 campaign tomorrow with a three-game home stand against Missouri State.
Though the Jackets were picked to finish eighth in the ACC by the coaches of the conference, with a new coach at the helm and the return of nearly every key player from last season’s team, the Jackets have the potential to make a push back to the top of the conference.
After the dismissal of Sharon Perkins, athletic director Mike Bobinski made his first coaching hire at Tech, naming Shelley Hoerner head softball coach. Hoerner coached at College of Charleston the past eight seasons, where she posted a record of 254-206. Hoerner led the Cougars to a 37-20 record last season. Hoerner told the Technique last month that her team is hard working and knows what it takes to win. She also said that the team should be fun to watch with how much they plan to run and their ability to hit the long ball.
Pitching could once again be the downfall for the Jackets this season, however. The Jackets ranked seventh out of eight last season in team ERA at 5.37, and dead last in the ACC in walks allowed, giving up 221 free passes.
The worst part is that Tech lost their most successful pitcher from last season, Hope Rush. Rush started 27 games for the Jackets last season, nearly half of the 55 total. She had a 1-13 record with the team leading 4.04 ERA. Rush also made eight relief appearances and was on the mound for 49 percent of Tech’s innings. Rush finally led the team at the plant with 52 RBIs and 17 home runs.
The most probable replacements for Hope on the mound are sophomore Ashley Clifton and Junior Kylie Kleinschmidt. Kleinschmidt had the second most starts on the team last season with 11, and posted a 7-7 record with a 6.42 ERA. Clifton started 10 games before being sidelined with an injury. Freshman Kanari Cabrales could also be an option. Cabrales led Archer High School to a state championship last season with a 24-4 record and a 1.23 ERA. She was named the 2012 Gwinett County Pitcher of the Year.
The Jackets had no problems putting up numbers on the offensive side last season. Tech ranked first in the ACC in batting average and stolen bases last season and third in runs scored with 304. In terms of batting average, the Jackets will be returning their top four hitters from last season, including 2013 ACC Player of the Year Ashley Thomas. The senior shortstop hit .417 last season with 30 RBIs. Though Thomas only had 16 multi-base hits last season, she made up for it with her speed, stealing an ACC-high 37 bases. Senior catcher Alysha Rudnik will also be a key piece of the Jackets’ infield. The catcher hit .399 last season and had the most RBIs, 49, of any returning player.
The most likely candidates to start in the outfield this season are sophomore Morgan Taylor, junior Katie Johnsky and senior Hayley Downs. Taylor received the most playing time out of the freshman last season when she started 34 of the 35 games in left field. She hit .231 and had 27 RBIs. Johnsky started every game in right field last season and hit .345, the third highest average on the team. Johnsky was also second on the team in doubles with 13. Downs hit .339 last season and was efficient on the base path, converting 17 of 18 stolen base attempts. Downs’ .339 average was much improved over her sophomore season when she hit just .228.
Even with all the talent the Jackets are returning, the addition of three new teams to the conference will make it more difficult to win the conference. Prior to this season, the ACC only had eight teams that participated in softball as Clemson, Miami, Duke and Wake Forest do not have teams. All three of the newcomers, Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame, have teams which will push the conference up to 11 teams.
The Jackets will open up conference play with a three game series against Boston College on March 1, and will then get their first crack at one of the newcomers, Notre Dame, in their second conference series of the season on March 8.