The Tech softball team opened the regular season on Feb. 10 by beating No. 8 Arizona. The win was a sign that this year’s Tech team has enough talented players to challenge for a title. The Jackets will have to rely on their top players if they want to reach the College World Series, but one team member will play a double role this season.
Junior pitcher Hope Rush enters her third season in the Jackets’ pitching rotation and has won at least 12 games each season. However, what makes Rush unique is that she is also a force behind the plate. She has hit 32 home runs in her Tech career and knocked in 98 runs. Rush’s skills at the plate have led coaches to make her the designated player on days when she is not pitching just so they can put her in the lineup.
“Pitching is my passion, and hitting is something that just relaxes me, especially if I am hitting and pitching in the same game. Being a pitcher gives me an advantage when I am at the plate because it is easier for me to pick certain pitches [to swing at],” Rush said.
Rush’s ability to not let hitting get in the way of her pitching is contrary to the popular belief that focusing on one will interfere with the other. However, Rush has been defying popular belief ever since she got to Tech.
Rush’s freshman season was spectacular. She was a force in the circle, finishing the year with 28 wins and a 1.98 ERA. She was even better at the plate, hitting 20 home runs and slugging .659. Her numbers garnered her praise from media outlets around the country as she was first team All-ACC and was a semifinalist for the USA Softball Player of the Year award.
“I didn’t pay attention [to the numbers and accolades]… If I thought too much about [the success], it could all go downhill. People would bring it to my attention, but I just thought: ‘Okay, well now I need to keep it up’,” Rush said.
However, the pressure to keep up her stellar play took a toll on Rush during her sophomore season. Rush only won 12 games as a pitcher and saw her ERA rise to 3.10. Rush also struggled as a hitter, only knocking in 38 runs.
“My sophomore season was not as good as my freshman year. I put a lot more pressure on myself during my sophomore year. My coaches, parents, and teammates didn’t put too much pressure on me; I did it to myself. I thought I had to do even better than my freshman season, and putting all that pressure on myself did not help at all,” Rush said.
Rush realized that she had experienced what countless other players before her had gone through: a sophomore slump. Instead of getting better as during her second season as a college athlete, Rush seemed to regress. She could not seem to break out of her slump even as the team’s win total continued to climb.
However, Rush is determined that her sophomore slump does not follow her to her junior season. Rush has been working hard this offseason to improve her game as a pitcher and a hitter.
“I took two days off after last season ended to give my body a rest, and then I pitched in a summer league. I pitched two games every Sunday until the last weekend in July and made small goals for myself. That way I could be prepared physically to compete during the season,” Rush said.
Perhaps more important than her hard work and reps this offseason, Rush took time to mentally prepare herself for the regular season.
“The main goal this season is for me to keep my composure. It doesn’t matter if there is a good call or bad call…This season I have just tried to be mentally tougher or what I like to call it: be a mental giant,” Rush said.
The change in philosophy has also led Rush to realize that the pressure does not rest solely on her shoulders. Tech has powerful hitters who can also hit for average, and the team’s pitching success will depend on the entire staff.
“We have three really good pitchers, and a team can’t be successful with one pitcher. Whether a person needs to close the game or someone only pitches half of the game, you need to have a strong pitching staff,” Rush said.
The pitching staff will be instrumental if Tech is take make a serious run to the World Series, but Rush and the team are taking the season one step at a time.
“As far as goals, the team has talked about laying bricks. The first brick will be winning the ACC regular season championship… The last brick is to make it to the World Series,” Rush said.
Laying each one of those bricks will take hard work from the entire team, but if Rush can become a “mental giant” and play more like she did during her freshman season then the Jackets could find themselves laying more bricks than they had originally intended.