The spring sports season at Clemson is full of long balls and great plays on the diamond. Before 2020 there was only one team playing on the diamond in Tiger Town, and that was the storied Clemson baseball team. The athletics department announced the addition of a new softball program just over 4 years ago (March 14, 2017), with the first season set to start in 2020. At the time, it felt like an eternity away.
John Rittman, former Team USA assistant and 18-season Stanford Head Coach, was tabbed as the first head coach of the fledglingprogram. The Tigers were built for early success, but expectations were tempered as the fan base was unsure what to expect. Fast forward to March 2021 and here we are, in the middle of season 2 for the Tigers, and WHAT a start to a program. A start that could not be expected by even those most optimistic.
This is an introduction to Clemson Softball. Sit back, relax, and jump on board my newest, favorite program at Clemson University.
First things first, my public service announcement. If you’re not paying attention to the Clemson Softball program, I highly suggest you start. This team is quickly challenging to be the most exciting program on campus. Yes, I said it. THE most exciting program on campus. Ok, maybe I am jumping the gun a little bit, especially with the success during the past decade of the football team, but turn on a game one weekend and you will have a difficult time turning it off. Coupled with games that move very quick, they keep your attention throughout the entirety of the 7-inning games.
This. Team. Is. FUN!
I am not a history guy, but here’s a quick history lesson. One that I can get on board with. The 2020 season was the first in the existence of the Clemson Softball program. In the Covid-19 shortened season a year ago, the Tigers were a very impressive 19-8. Even more impressive, they started their first ever season 2-4 before winning 17 of their next 21 games until the year came to an abrupt halt. But that was only the beginning.
2021 started with some promise since the NCAA decided to allow Spring sport athletes a “free” year of eligibility to make up for the Covid shortened 2020 season. That is an important sentence for describing this program. Attrition is huge in college athletics, but the 2021 team is only missing ONE player from a season ago. That player is MK Bonamy, the first leader of the inaugural team. Bonamy was a big bat, a steady force at first base, and (not to mention) the Goddaughter of Dabo Swinney, but she decided after transferring from Notre Dame that she had played enough collegiate softball and was ready to move on to the real world.
As big a loss as Bonamy was, especially in the leadership department, it was hard not to have a giddy feeling thinking about all the talent that was returning. With said talent, especially in the circle (that’s the pitching area for those not privy to softball “lingo”), the early season success should not be a surprise to those who invested even the tiniest bit of timefollowing the team a season ago. This writer says it more often than he should, but...
This. Team. Is. Fun!
(They're really, really good too.)
Let’s get into the who’s who on this impressive team shall we?
When talking about the 2021 team, you have to start “in the circle” with Valerie Cagle (Yorktown, VA). The ace of the pitching staff also carries a big bat in the lineup. Something some baseball fans would marvel at, Cagle does with ease on the softball field. When she is not pitching, Cagle will play anywhere in the outfield, hitting at a high clip, and also likes to show off that big arm, amassing some outfield assists this year. The preseason All-ACC selection is only a Covid Freshman which means that she will be a force for years to come at McWhorter Stadium.
The pitching staff is still very young, but loaded with talent. Behind Cagle are true Freshmen Millie Thompson (Bedford, VA) and Regan Spencer (Lexington, NC) as well as returning Covid Freshmen Logan Caymol (Buford, GA) and Emma Whitfield (Toccoa, GA). The Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) has gone to a 4-game weekend series format for all intra-conference games played after February. Head Coach John Rittman seems to have settled with a rotation of Cagle in game 1on Friday, followed by Thompson and Spencer in the Saturday double-header, and then back to Cagle for the series finale on Sunday. This has led to (obvious) success early in the season. The pitching staff currently leads the ACC in team ERA with a stingy 1.49 going into this weekend’s huge series with the Duke Blue Devils (2nd in team ERA with 1.55).
Cagel leads the charge at the plate as much as she does in the circle. The “do-everything” superstar is currently second on the team with a .362 average (as of 3/25) with 6 doubles and 6 home runs. That’s right, the star pitcher is currently second on the team hitting the long ball. Who is the leader in that department? That would be right fielder Marissa Guimbarda (Suwanee, GA). The redshirt Junior, transfer from Furman University leads the team in hitting as a whole. She's currently hitting .373 with an OPS (on-base + slugging %) at a whopping 1.331 and 7 homeruns. Let’s put this in perspective. Guimbarda has 19 hits on this young season, and 7 of them are the long ball. I am no math guy, but that means 37% of her hits are home runs or a home run every 7.28 at bats. She’s also second on the team with 4 doubles.
But wait, there’s more. This writer's favorite player on the squad is true Freshman McKenzie Clark (Myakka City, FL). The starting center fielder also dabbles at the catching position. You have likely watched her sparkling defensive plays as a regular on Top 10 Plays on ESPN’s SportsCenter. Highly regarded out of high school (19th rated recruit in the country), Clark has continued to demonstrate her skills at a high level. She's hitting .319 and is a perfect 13 for 13 in stolen bases. She’s electric on both sides of the baseball and worth the price of admission.
In the infield, Redshirt Freshman JoJo Hyatt (Buford, GA) dons the “tools of ignorance” and does a great job catching the pitching staff. Redshirt Junior Grace Mattimore (Ashburn, VA) plays first base. The transfer from West Point has shown a ton of leadership and is a tremendous asset on defense. Senior Cammy Pereira (Winston-Salem, NC), also a transfer from Furman University, has battled some injuries early in the season but brings a ton of leadership at second base. She is currently hitting a solid .333 for the season in 45 at bats and also has a home run. Graduate Ansley Gilstrap (Blythewood, SC), a transfer from USC-Upstate and a great story in perseverance, is the leader of the team and a steady presence at shortstop. Gilstrap suffered a brain injury a season ago and has battled and rehabbed to lead this young Tigers squad. She's also hitting .333 for the season in 60 plate appearances and has a pair of homeruns. Third base has been played by true utility player, Graduate student Casey Bigham (also a Furman transfer). Bigham is asolid defensive player with timely hits and fills in at shortstop when Gilstrap is not available. She brings great leadership to this young Tigers team as well.
Reserves: Redshirt Freshman Abi Stuart (Snow Camp, NC) plays a little catcher among many other positions for the versatile Tigers. Redshirt Freshman Kyah Keller (Hollywood, AL), true Freshmen Sarah Howell (Oxford, AL) and Jaden Cheek (Carnesville, GA), and redshirt Freshman Hannah Goodwin (West Columbia, SC) have all contributed to the success of this team.
As much as I want to, I am not going to go in-depth, player for player on the roster. I will temper my excitement with each of these ladies.
This. Team. Is. Fun.
The Clemson schedule sets up nicely for a few really good college softball series in the coming weeks. The 9th ranked Duke Blue Devils travel to McWhorter Stadium this coming weekend (3/26 -3/28) in a battle for first place in the ACC. The showdown with Duke is followed by another home series with a very good UNC team before the Tigers head to South Bend, Indiana to face Notre Dame. The ACC has very good softball, so it is wonderful to see this team and this program having so much early success.
Clemson Softball games have become must-watch television (well, must-stream ESPN app) for me on the weekends and I highly recommend you tune in to one or twelve of the games as well. I promise you will not be disappointed.
This. Team. Is. Fun.