The official kickoff of spring, at least in this writer’s head, is when softball and baseball come back to the Flats. This year, unlike the past seven, we get an early spring, as the Buzz Classic returns to the Georgia Tech Softball schedule. So, with spring in mind, it’s high time YJR talks about the ladies of the Mew. There’s only so many days in a week and hours in a day, but, with the season imminent, those hours are drawing nigh until it’s springtime in Atlanta.
I’ll be the first to admit that I am a shill for selling the various venues of Georgia Tech. Whether it’s a rowdy Friday night in hot, humid O’Keefe Gymnasium for Volleyball or a bright, clear Sunday afternoon at Russ Chandler Field, I think some of Tech’s greatest assets are its physical ones. The Aquatic Center is one of the finest, and most historic, in the country, and Bobby Dodd is the oldest stadium in FBS football. All of these are well and good, but perhaps its most underrated facility is Shirley Clements Mewborn Field. The name in and of itself requires an acknowledgement. Mewborn was no softball player. In fact, she went to Tech really before the advent of organized varsity women’s sports in general. This is because she was the Institute’s first female graduate. What does this have to do with the actual sport of softball? Not much, to be honest, other than the weight a name of historical significance gives, and the support of the program that implicitly gives. The setting, though, is the other half worth talking about. Georgia Tech Softball is worth seeing for the product on the field, of course, but also because of the experience. For a program going into year three under the tutelage of Head Coach Aileen Morales, one would be remised not to expect that much to be different from the past. But, with the addition of several softball initiatives, adding a VIP terrace to the intimate, 1,500 seat park with a view southeast of the Midtown skyline, echoes the initiatives in the works for football with the new Edge Building, volleyball with the possible addition of a loge box in the O’Keefe Renovation, and baseball with the Russ Chandler Phase II project. The booster club reflects this investment in the off-the-field product. So what about the team that plays on it?
In a sentence, Tech had another year of growth in performance and in philosophy. Allowing myself to quote the season review I did over the summer liberally,
“In the win department, Tech took another step forward. For the second year in a row, they finished above .500...[and] they added to their win total. Rather than bowing out in the first round of the ACC Championship, the Jackets were able to net their first postseason win in recent memory before having the misfortune of drawing No. 5 Florida State in the quarterfinals, who had somehow only secured the conference’s second seed.
- The team mashed the ball:
Though they rank in the 61st percentile in batting average, they rank in the 87th percentile for home runs per game and slugging percentage. This team was built to rake. Not only that, the lower batting average is deceiving—their on-base percentage, unequivocally the more important statistic, is top-25 in the country, good for 92nd percentile nationally....This is a team of Kevin Youkilis-es or Kyle Schwarber-s, to borrow an ideology from Theo Epstein. Wait for your pitches, take hacks at them, and mash the [Hall & Oates] out of the ball. The strikeout percentage of 18.4% is pretty high, but so is the hit-by-pitch percentage. And they only grounded into five double plays all season. This team didn’t waste at bats on weak contact, and thus it became a team of the three true outcomes: striking out, walking, and hitting home runs.
- Pitching needs to catch up to the hitting:
With the power bats comes the inherent streakiness of hitting, but the real flip side of the coin to their solid hitting was the inflated team ERA. No. 224 in the country is not a good number. Of course, the pitching staff had good control, limiting their walks, but the .301 batting average against and that this group of strong sluggers getting out-slugged by opponents bely the truth that a lot of these games were higher-scoring affairs. The great pitching outings were fewer than would be ideal. Tech’s next big step will come when the pitching staff settles in a little bit. There are certainly good pieces in the bullpen, and we saw a couple pitching masterpieces last year, but it was too inconsistent to make them a tournament team, for sure.
- It will come down to one word, consistency:
My favorite [professional] baseball adage is that every team wins 60 games and loses 60 games, and it’s the other 40 that determine what kind of team you are. Georgia Tech has found a way to win more of those games year-over-year each of the last two seasons, but that still doesn’t mean they’ve reached the summit of the sport, surely, or even of their own potential. Taking care of business in the games you’re “supposed” to win goes a long way to getting the foot in the door for the Big Dance in May and June.
- There’s time, let it grow:
Asking for it to all come together right away is too tall of an order. It is entirely unreasonable to expect a team that went 19-34 with a team ERA of 4.82 to become a juggernaut within two years. In the meantime, control what you can control - they didn’t steal a lot of bases, but a roughly 79% success rate is good - don’t waste outs - low number of double plays grounded into - keep your mind in the game - a fielding percentage in the top two thirds of the country - and wait for your pitch - great batting eyes. Stansbury’s first hire has been lauded by plenty more than us here at From the Rumble Seat. But it deserves to be said they’re building quite the strong foundation. It’s pretty easy to see the fielding is coming along, but isn’t perfect yet. It’s pretty easy to see a lot of Tech’s games result in a lot of runs for both sides. It’s pretty easy to see they put a lot of batters on the basepaths and hit a lot of dingers. It’s also pretty easy to see just how far they’ve come and how much potential they have.
2018-2019 Schedule Breakdown
Like I mentioned before, taking care of business in the games you’re “supposed to win” is vital to making the tournament in a top-heavy sport. We see this most notably in the 2019 Volleyball season. A common line of thinking is an early loss to Kennesaw State and another to Boston College are what kept them out of the tournament, and that’s probably true. In the case of softball, while these two losses probably aren’t a direct cause of not making the the tournament, with their pedestrian RPI, but the slow start against Providence was not an ideal leadoff to the schedule. That begs the question: why even bring up such a direct allusion to Georgia Tech volleyball?
Georgia Tech Volleyball 2018-2019 Final RPI: no. 96
Georgia Tech Volleyball 2019-2020 Final RPI: no. 41
Georgia Tech Softball 2018-2019 Final RPI: no. 90
Obviously, it’s a different sport with a different staff and athletes, but the parallels are there. A young team that loses a key piece or two but brings in a couple notable reinforcements and stands a chance to make a deep run. They build the confidence, culture of the program, and experience necessary to be a great team. And additional year with Morales at the helm added four games to the regular season slate last year, and the difficulty of the schedule was more significant as well. Take a page from volleyball’s book, or from the 2016-2017 men’s basketball team - it is important to get out there and bank wins. Play your game.
As for that last point, they certainly did that last year, as best exemplified by a particular game against Pittsburgh.
Georgia Tech would eventually finish off the series sweep of the Panthers, who were abysmal last year, as they should have, but not before spotting their guests a healthy 9 run lead. Tech scored 18 unanswered runs to win 18-9, which makes sense because they were a better team, and certainly a group of better bats, but getting shelled by the worst team in the conference for the early innings wasn’t ideal.
Georgia Tech lived and died by its bats last year. When senior third baseman and critical lineup piece Katie Krzus went down last year with a midseason injury, Tech’s fortunes swooned a little bit with the lack of one of their foundational players. A 1-7 stretch, featuring a sweep at home against a newer Duke team, on the road against a solid Iowa State team, and a midweek road heartbreaker at No. 4 Alabama. Series like the Notre Dame and Louisville sweeps and the season-ending Florida State loss show Tech just what work is cut out for them in order to compete not just with the class of the conference, but the class of the country, as well. But these are the unsavory points. The good news is that Tech has shown it can compete. Four series wins in conference last year was a positive step. Tech’s midweek showings, even in games they didn’t win, were consistently strong, even against juggernauts like Alabama and the school in Athens. These are reasons to be confident in the next steps of the program.
My favorite sign, though, came in fall ball. Tech took a 3-0 lead on Auburn into the top of the seventh, and would have closed a normal game out with a 3-2 win, thanks to six great innings of pitching prowess - great progress from last year - and some home run power, as well. Since it was fall ball, there were some bonus innings, and Tech took the loss 6-5, but, great softball against a great team. I think that’s promising.
Cameron Stanford - JR, OF, All-ACC Second Team, Started every game in CF, Led team in HR (13)
Tricia Awald - JR, 1B, NFCA All-Southeast, Started every game at 1B, Second in ACC in doubles
Breanna Roper - JR, 2B, Led NCAA in H most of season, Started every game at 2B, First in ACC in doubles,
Crosby Huckabay - SR, OF, Started 53 games, 12 HR
Bailee Zeitler - SO, SS, ACC-All Freshman Team, Started every game at SS, plus defender
Morgan Bruce - SR, P, 17-14 with 5 CG, 51 appearances, 3.87 ERA
Emma Kauf - Freshman (NE) catcher with HR power from the left side of the plate, speed on bases, can stretch singles to doubles, etc. A step up from the catcher position at the plate would be a great plus. Nebraska Softball Gatorade PoY.
Madison McPherson - Transfer (Athens) pitcher with limited experience, but a 1.71 ERA in 16.1 innings last year. Pitching help is always appreciated.
Blake Neleman - Freshman (GA) pitcher with good state high school accolades.
Lexi Ray - Transfer (UT-Martin) pitcher who went 26-16 with a 2.87 ERA and earned conference newcomer recognition.
Takeaways: Per Wiley Ballard’s interview, they want to “pitch like a baseball program,” i.e. focusing on matchups. The pitching help they needed last year is coming to bolster all the well-decorated bats. Lexi Ray in particular seems like a great one to keep an eye on, with the most experience at the college level. The staff will likely look a lot different this year than last year.
Schedule Highlights (2019 Final RPI)
2/7: Washington 6:00 PM (3)
2/8: Washington 3:30 PM (3)
2/21: vs. Kentucky 1:30 PM (Birmingham, AL) (16)
2/22 vs. Kentucky 1:30 p.m. (Birmingham, AL) (16)
2/28 Iowa State 1:00 PM and 3:00 PM (49)
3/4 at Georgia 6:00 PM (21)
3/20 Oklahoma State 6:00 PM (10)
3/21 Oklahoma State 1:00 PM (10)
3/22 South Carolina 1:00 PM (22)
3/28 at Florida State 1:00 PM (6)
3/29 at Florida State 7:00 PM (6)
3/30 at Florida State 6:00 PM (6)
4/9 North Carolina 6:00 PM (26)
4/10 North Carolina 2:00 PM (26)
4/11 North Carolina 1:00 PM (26)
4/24 Virginia Tech 6:00 PM (29)
4/25 Virginia Tech 2:00 PM (29)
4/26 Virginia Tech 1:00 PM (29)
In year three, it is perhaps Morales’ schedule-building that has been the most impressive. Tech gets two hacks at Washington, tabbed as the nation’s top team in the preseason poll, in the very first weekend of the year. If Tech can start off strong, it would be a massive boon for the Jackets. The top of the Coastal is trending in the right direction, too, which means the conference slate won’t be as much of a millstone as it had the potential to be the past few years. I would call it “scheduling like Hall,” but, credit where credit is due, the football and golf programs have been doing it for years, and basketball really ratcheted up the strength of schedule this year. The athletic program is taking on challengers, and softball is not different. Morales has said repeatedly that the players feed off the fans and vice versa, as a part of building her program and the excitement around it. The schedule, especially the great home slate, will absolutely help that. The product on the field, and the various teams coming to challenge the Jackets, will certainly turn eyes to Tech.
See you Monday with the results, or, perhaps somewhere around Eighth and Fowler at Mewborn Field this weekend.