Coming into the 2011 season, the Tech softball team had few uncertainties following an ACC Championship the year before. Among those uncertainties was replacing Jen Yee’s offensive production at second base and finding a back-end starter to replace the departed Jessica Coan.
However, having only played 10 games so far this season, the Jackets have already seemed to fill those holes and added unforeseen value through their new freshmen players.
It did not take long for Head Coach Sharon Perkins to show off one of her freshman weapons, doing so in the team’s first at bat of the season. Perkins elected to pencil in freshman second baseman Ashley Thomas in the lead off spot in the batting order.
Although Thomas did not get a hit in the at bat, it showed that Perkins would not hesitate to use one of her young players at a pivotal moment in the game.
Tech relied heavily on the leadoff spot to produce base runners and get hits last season, and Yee was the primary leadoff hitter for the Jackets. The team will need to find someone who can replicate Yee’s numbers, but Thomas does not feel any pressure to carry the heavy load alone.
“I believe that there is no pressure, except for the pressure that you put on yourself. My mindset is just be the best second baseman you can be and that is all that matters,” Thomas said.
Thomas showed she could carry some of the load in a recent game versus Chattanooga. Perkins elected to move Thomas down to the eighth spot in the order and Thomas responded with a triple and an RBI.
“[The hit] felt great. I was obviously struggling at first with those being our first two games, but it felt really good that I could go out there and get a hit,” Thomas said.
Thomas was relieved to get her first collegiate hits, but she did not feel bad that she had been moved down in the batting order in doing so.
“Just being in the lineup is great enough. It is a privilege, but I would like to be first, second, or ninth… whatever the coaches need me to be, I will be happy,” Thomas said.
It is Thomas’ versatility that makes her so attractive as a player, and that is an attribute shared by the rest of her fellow freshman, especially third baseman Ashley Rudnik.
Although primarily used at third base, Rudnik has also seen time at catcher this season as well, having played the position in high school.
“I feel like catching is my more natural position just because I have played there the last three years, but I really do like switching between [catcher and third base] because third gives me a break on my legs and it is a nice change… Both positions are reaction positions,” Rudnik said.
As if playing two key positions was not valuable enough, Rudnik also showed she could produce at the plate with her .387 average and six extra base hits. One of those extra base hits included a home run in her first collegiate game.
“[Hitting the home run] was not something that I have thought about, but it is a cool feeling… I never think of [hitting a home run], and if I ever do, it never works out that way,” Rudnik said.
Freshman outfielder Hayley Downs was yet another freshman that earned a starting job in the team’s first game of the season, playing left field. Like Rudnik, Downs can play more than one position, and she expects to move around between the outfield spots this season.
Downs has also shown versatility at the plate after hitting eighth, ninth and sixth so far this season, and she also has a pinch-hit appearance. Although she only has seven at bats this season, Downs leads the team with her .429 batting average. Her “slapper” style of hitting makes her unique on Tech’s roster, and her speed helps her get on base.
“We are such a power hitting team, and I knew with [fellow slapper, senior center fielder Christy Jones], in the lineup… that I would not get that much time in the lineup, but when I get my opportunity I just play… and playing different positions gives me more opportunities,” Downs said.
Tech also has another freshman outfielder on its roster, but Kaitlin Kates has not played so far this season because of a broken left hand. Kates is eager to return to the field in the coming weeks, but she too can play multiple positions as she played the infield in high school before becoming a member of Tech’s outfield.
“I prefer right field, but it is a totally new position for me… I will just play wherever coach wants me to,” Kates said.
However, Tech does not only have freshmen position players that have been playing a big role in the team’s success, the team also has freshman pitcher Lindsey Anderson who has injected some youth into Tech’s pitching staff.
Anderson came in for a relief appearance in Tech’s second game of the season and pitched a scoreless inning. Anderson followed up that performance with her first win of her career, which came on the following day, as the young right-hander threw seven strikeouts in five innings.
The freedom to use Anderson in a variety of situations is a plus for Perkins as Anderson feels comfortable in either role.
“If I come out of the bullpen it is more of an attack-mode mentality. I want to prove that I am equally as good as the pitcher that was in before me. Whereas starting a game, you just want to show [the opponent] that you can get them out, three-up and three-down. It is an intimidation factor,” Anderson said.
Each freshman brings something different to the table, but each freshman feels comfortable doing whatever their coaches’ ask of them whether its catching pitches from behind the plate, moving down to the bottom of the batting order or moving to the other side of the field. That freedom will allow Perkins to configure the lineup card exactly the way she wants it and give the team a great shot at repeating as ACC Champions.