Here is the first part of our three part Gainesville Regional Q&A preview with writers from Georgia Tech, Florida and Canisius. Up first, we have Friday afternoon’s opponent’s (Ga. Tech, Friday afternoon at 1 p.m. CT on ESPNU) writer, Jake Grant from our SB Nation cousins From The Rumble Seat, who cover all things Georgia Tech.
Here are his answers:
The Yellow Jackets are back in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in a decade. How has manager Aileen Morales gotten them back to this point?
Tech softball has certainly been on an interesting road since the last time the Jackets have made the NCAA Tournament in 2012, when Tech stormed through the ACC Tournament to turn a solid 33-21 regular season into an automatic bid.
After a down year in 2013, Tech swapped Sharon Perkins for Shelly Horner at the helm and promptly turned a team that had made every tournament from 2002 to 2012, winning five conference titles, into one that could not crack a .500 win percentage.
After a 19-34 campaign in 2017, Tech’s then-new athletic director, Todd Stansbury, hired Aileen Morales, who had been one of Tech softball’s most awarded athletes in her time on the Flats, and who had been an assistant coach for the latter half of Tech’s time as a consistent presence at the top of the conference.
— Georgia Tech Softball (@GaTechSoftball) May 20, 2022
: Gainesville Regional
: #⃣3⃣ seed Wisconsin
⏰: 2⃣ p.m.
: Gainesville, Fla.
️: Katie Seashole Pressly Stadium
: https://t.co/OZLCyUVu1h#BeGold /// #404Institute pic.twitter.com/Ft4BE3sDRH
In the intervening years, Morales has improved the team from the ground up, applying her analytical bent and particular expertise at the plate to improve first Tech’s batting, which immediately lifted them out of the ACC cellar, qualifying for the conference tournament in her first year after a multi-season absence.
With softball being a sport where verbal commitments happen at a young age and multi-year recruitments are the norm, high school recruiting didn’t tick up immediately, but her last few classes have been an improvement, and she bolstered her roster with transfers, most notably Tricia Awald, who was a standout up the road at Kennesaw State as a freshman before coming to Tech.
Perhaps the most critical turning point for the staff was the hiring of Marty McDaniel as pitching coach after a lengthy and successful stint at Tennessee. Though Tech had already recruited ace Blake Neleman when McDaniel was hired, he has helped shore up the rest of the staff, and his combination of Neleman and Michigan transfer Chandler Dennis has been Tech’s best staff in recent memory.
It is this addition, while maintaining their plate presence and surprisingly ruthlessness on the base paths for a purportedly analytical coaching staff, that has helped propel the Jackets back to the NCAA tournament.
Who is one player in the Ga. Tech lineup that needs to be getting on base regularly for the Jackets to score some runs?
Tech has a lineup anchored by first baseman and fifth year senior Awald as well as a junior catcher recruited out of high school in Nebraska Emma Kauf. These two almost always bat successively, and with the ACC’s leader in on base percentage and walks (Awald) paired with the ACC’s leader in doubles (Kauf), Tech often capitalizes and manufactures runs in one-two combinations. If Awald can keep getting on base at the rate she has the whole season, that would go a long way to getting Tech baserunners.
Who will the Badgers likely face on the mound? What makes this pitcher so successful?
Wisconsin will likely face Blake Neleman on the mound, given she is Tech’s leader on the season with a 2.24 ERA and undisputed team ace. She’s incredibly effective at notching strikeouts, and this ability to sit batters down without contact helps keep runs off the board and helps Tech get out of situations with crowded base paths.
While predictions are tough, how do you think the game between Wisconsin and Georgia Tech goes? What is one thing the Yellow Jackets need to do to make sure they leave the field with a win?
I would hate to sound like a homer for Tech — my first football game as a kid was at Camp Randall and I went to high school with one of the best hitters in the Wisconsin lineup, after all — but I do think Tech has an opportunity here to notch an opening round win. I think the game will likely end up as a 5-3 or 6-4-type affair, as Tech isn’t great at keeping games scoreless, but does have a predilection for a big inning or two each game — hopefully, in this case it is at the plate, rather than in the field.
-— Georgia Tech Softball (@GaTechSoftball) May 20, 2022
Congrats to @TriciaAwald22 and @EmmaKauf for raking in more awards, this time being named NFCA Southeast Second Team All-Region❕
: https://t.co/ECbMnYBuoS#BeGold /// #404Institute pic.twitter.com/vLRThsJ96f
I think, with as consistent and productive as Tech’s hitting has been this year, the best sign for Tech to make sure they win is to ensure the only pitcher Wisconsin sees is Neleman. If the bases stay empty — or at the very least, the scoring happens in small increments — then that bodes very well for Tech’s lineup to take care of the rest.
Parts II and III, with Canisius and Florida, will be coming later.