METZ, FRANCE - Thanks to the ubiquity of the weekend series coupled with the lingering presence of scheduled doubleheaders and multi-game tournaments, on sheer number, there are probably more of these games than any other sport on the Flats. That breeds familiarity, though not contempt. The year was, for all of its inconsistencies, surprisingly consistent. The Jackets won some great games, yet also lost some head-scratchers and had spells with disappearing bats. So, a mixed bag. What does it mean?
Had this series existed a year ago at this time, this article would, for all intents and purposes, be entirely conjecture. Anything within reason could have been true. Sure, there were some proven assets, thanks to the return of crucial starting pitching and several veteran cornerstones. Yet, those pieces were coming back off of a team with some pretty obvious deficiencies. Any team that loses more than it wins is bound to have those. Add in a brand-new head coach that had never taken the helm in a major conference before, and one is left with more questions than answers. Fortunately, there was more to it than that, and the Jackets wound up with a nine game improvement under first year skipper Aileen Morales’ leadership.
Morales, Athletic Director Todd Stansbury’s first hire on the Flats, stood out as a Tech alumnae and former assistant coach. With a fine record turning around mediocre teams at Young Harris College and Radford University in her previous stops as head coach, the hire looked like a win from the start. While she was away from Tech working her way up the softball coaching ladder, the Jackets were stuck in the doldrums. After winning four conference and tournament titles in her nine years on the Flats, in addition to making eight NCAA Regionals and a Super-Regional, Tech made just one conference tournament appearance after she left, coming in 2014. The Jackets, who finished 6 games under .500 and out of postseason play for the third straight year, seemed to be the perfect job for her.
The fall tune-up was not necessarily a good barometer for judging the Jackets right out of the gate. Granted, it is always productive to take care of business against lesser teams, but shelling a random small college isn’t exactly the best way to get a view of the team. If anything, it reassured us that the program turnover was handled, the veterans were coming back as expected, and that the team might make some noise in the spring.
Those veterans, including notables like senior pitcher Emily Anderson, a leader ultimately honored with a nomination for Woman of the Year and earning ACC All-Academic, as well as second team All-Conference awards. Additionally, senior outfielder Draven Sonnon, All-Academic and second team All-Conference in her own right, junior first baseman Katie Krzus, and sophomore catcher Rebecca Prairie, though obviously holdovers from the previous staff, were expected to anchor the lineup nonetheless. They were complemented by a freshman signing class including Cameron Stanford, Breanna Roper, Lily Hooper, and Saige Pye. Though all four would play outsized roles on the 2018 team, Stanford’s quick elite play at the collegiate level proved to be a spark for the team all spring and she would finish the year with highest on the team in on base percentage, doubles, walks, and batting average, as well as garnering ACC All-Academic, All-Freshman, and second team All-Conference honors along the way.
Tech started the season ignominiously, with losses to Lipscomb and Florida A&M in the Sand Dollar Classic, before the rest of the tournament was thankfully rained out. Though both losses were tightly played, it was not a great sign to start the season. Tech kept the unfortunate streak up on the road against the crosstown Georgia State Panthers. Perhaps their first homestand would provide them some measure of relief. Though their two games against then-no.22 Nebraska were both losses, they got on the positive side of the ledger with two wins against Indiana. From there, they went on a tear, going 9-2 over the next two weeks, including a win over eventual Big East champion and NCAA tournament qualifier DePaul. Tech kept up their winning ways into the first series of ACC play, sweeping the Virginia Cavaliers, before falling to no. 12 Alabama at home. The Jackets rebounded by taking a series against the North Carolina State Wolfpack heading into Spring Break. For their break, the Jackets headed to sunny Southern California, and came back 3-2. Those two losses, though, were to Cal Sate Northridge and Santa Clara, killing the Jackets’ RPI. The break was an unfortunate turn, despite the winning record. The Jackets’ bats must’ve stayed on break, too, as they proceeded to drop their next six after returning to the East Coast. Granted, three of those losses came at the hands of the eventual national champion Florida State and another was a one-run stalemate against the no. 5 ranked school in Athens, but losing six straight is never really a great thing. The Jackets rallied with another ACC series win against Duke. Tech split the next two weeks, with a non-conference win against Presbyterian and a 2-1 series win against North Carolina balanced by the reverse at the hands of Kennesaw State and Pittsburgh. Tech’s final non-conference game was an extra-innings loss to a solid Jacksonville State team, and they split the difference in their final two conference series.
As for the playoffs, that delightful return to late-spring softball was unfortunately cut short at the hands of the Tar Heels. As put in a previous Yellow Jacket Roundup,
The Jackets couldn’t muster up the same magic that served them so well in the home series against the Tar Heels, falling 6-1 to North Carolina in the quarterfinals of the ACC tournament, their first appearance since 2014. Though they jumped out to an early lead, the Jackets couldn’t hold on to their slim 1-0 margin. In the top of the third, the Jackets, the visitors thanks to being the higher seed, tacked on a run when Krzus knocked in Sonnon with a single. The Heels took the lead in the bottom of the same inning, scoring two. The score stood there until North Carolina managed four insurance runs in the bottom of the sixth, thus sealing the Jackets’ fate.
Since only two ACC teams advanced to the NCAA tournament this year, the Jackets, who finished 111th in RPI, were not one of them, despite improving greatly from 155th in 2017. Thanks to all-around improvements, starting from the inspired hire Morales as the sixth head coach in program history, in one recruiting class the Jackets improved by nine wins. This does not even reflect the narrow losses that befuddled the Jackets on a seemingly weekly basis. With more consistency at the plate, or even getting their runners the last ninety feet, they could have taken an even bigger stride. The Jackets ultimately lost ten games by just a single run, and several more by a pair. They were never out of games, period. Sure, there were narrow and frustrating losses, some against great teams, but Tech was playing to win, competitive in every conference series for the the first time in years, and they were probably better than their record gave them credit for.
Sure, Tech had two especially brutal losing streaks, and a couple of losses that it would have been great to have back, but this was a team in transition. That kind of thing is bound to happen. In the end, they finished with their first winning record in years, and five conference series wins, to boot. They got experience. They won more than they lost. Good steps.
Meanwhile, in the offseason, Tech is retooling with transfers and recruits. Tech has signed three of the former and five of the latter for the spring of 2019. The incoming freshman class includes pitcher Palmer Pinholster, a two-time Georgia state champion and All-State award winner. Help in the circle would go a long way for the Jackets, who lose acclaimed starter Anderson to graduation, undoubtably their best pitcher. Pinholster joins the fall signees, featuring power hitter Madalyn Billings, a biochemistry major also awarded all-region first team honors on the way to the state finals in her junior year, Ariella Jackson, a versitile fielder who had both the most hits and home runs in her high school’s history before her senior season even started, shortstop Hannah Turnbull, twice named to the Georgia all-state team and a solid defender at a position vacated by a graduated senior, and Bailee Zeiter, also a shortstop, but a catcher as well, earning her a Defensive Player of the Year honor.
The incoming transfers include two proven Division One players. Amber Johns, from Division II North Georgia, isn’t too shabby in her own right, sporting an 18-0 record and a 0.76 ERA last season. Her all-time collegiate record is 26-3, and if even half of that success transfers over to the Flats, that pitching will be huge for a team in need of help on the mound. Morales and her staff also inked the Atlantic Sun Conference Freshman of the Year, Tricia Awald, who led Kennesaw State in batting average, slugging percentage, on-base percentage, runs, home runs, and runs batted in on the way to their first Atlantic Sun softball title. Tech went 1-1 against her Owls in 2018, winning the first game by mercy rule, but dropping the second in ten innings when she crossed the plate for the game’s only run. Finally, the Jackets signed junior Morgan Bruce from Ole Miss, a former SEC All-Freshman selection. Bruce was 11-5 with a 3.16 ERA for the Rebels, a solid pitcher with proven experience in one of the toughest conferences in the sport. All three of these transfers are welcome and substantial additions to this team.
In 2018, Tech played 10 games against tournament-bound teams, going 2-8 in those games. However, two losses came in extras, three by one run, and several more by only a pair of runs. This team was in games until the very end. The Jackets lost some key parts, like Anderson on the mound and lineup regulars like Sonnen and Kelsey Chisholm, but the thrills of last season combined with the stacked slate of transfers and solid freshman class leaves this writer clamoring for more softball. Sure, he’s also more than a little biased coming from a softball family and being an alumnus of the best softball high school in Illinois for most of this decade, but after a taste of the postseason and a full year of Morales’ wheelings and dealings, fans should clamor for more. This team has the chance to take another huge step this spring. The best days of Tech softball have been with Aileen Morales on the Flats.
Those days are back.
Coming up next week: Golf
Stay tuned for more investigation into the state of non-revenue sports, mild soapbox editorializing, and, hopefully, some productive discourse to get us through the summer. As always, fell free to leave any questions, comments, and feedback below.