#TGW: A-Mo's Way
Former Georgia Tech softball great Aileen Morales is back on The Flats to return program to ACC, national prominence
Jon Cooper | The Good Word
Winning seems to follow some people around.
Aileen Morales is one of those people.
Combine the records from her playing career at Georgia Tech (185-83), her four years as an assistant coach at Tech (179-61), and her four years as a head coach at Young Harris College (51-51) and Radford (62-54), and Morales is 483-249, good for a .660 winning percentage.
Throw in her 59-28 record playing professionally with the Chicago Bandits of National Pro Fastpitch -- where she was a first-round draft pick and part of a championship team in 2008 playing with Yellow Jackets teammates Caitlin Lever and Jessica Sallinger -- and she's 542-277 (.662 win percentage).
It's that kind of winning that convinced Georgia Tech to hire Morales as the sixth head coach in program history.
"[Director of athletics] Todd [Stansbury] and I had a criteria," said associate director of athletics Joeleen Akin. "We wanted someone that came from a winning program or someone that had built or turned around a program. Someone with the history of winning and championships was important to us. We also wanted someone who could understand Georgia Tech and the uniqueness of recruiting to Georgia Tech. Former athletics directors that have worked with her that I talked to said that anything she touches turns into a winner and a champion."
That certainly was the case at Georgia Tech, where "A-Mo" played and coached for teams that averaged 43 wins, won four Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season championships (2005, 2009-11), four ACC Tournaments (2005, 2009-10, 2012) and appeared in eight NCAA Tournament Regionals (2005-12) and a Super Regional (2009).
Morales was a big part of that winning. It started in 2005, when she earned ACC co-Freshman of the Year and second-team all-ACC honors, while leading the conference in stolen bases, in what should have been her final semester of high school -- she'd graduated early from Hardaway High School in Columbus.
"That was powerful to us," said Akin. "Right there, we knew that we had someone special."
Morales tacked on two more all-ACC honors, both on the first team, three all-region selections and a third-team All-America honor. She's still Georgia Tech's all-time leader in games played (265), starts (265), at-bats (850) and stolen bases (154) and ranks in the top 10 in runs (216, second), hits (261, third), doubles (43, tied for fifth) and triples (10, also tied for fifth). She has had three of the top five stolen base seasons, including the school-record 46 as a senior in 2008.
She continue her winning ways as a head coach, leading Young Harris College to a then-season-high 31 wins in its first year after moving up to NCAA Division II from the junior-college ranks in 2015. Then, in 2016, authored a Division I-best 23-game turnaround at Radford.
All the while, returning to Georgia Tech was in the back of her mind. It moved to the front-burner when the school chose not to renew the contract of coach Shelly Hoerner.
"Once I saw that they didn't renew Shelly's contract, I hoped that maybe I could be in the mix," Morales said. "Anybody who knows me knows that I have a real passion for Georgia Tech and have always followed the program. It was one of those things where both things aligned. My interest was known and they thought I was a good candidate as well."
That Morales recognized and took the steps she needed to take to become a head coach spoke to her character.
"She knew she needed to get head-coaching experience because her ultimate dream was to come back to Georgia Tech," Akin said. "So she was willing to go to a Division II school and be a head coach and then go to Radford and be the head coach. She said she became a better coach going from the elite athlete to an athlete that she would have to develop more. She didn't tie herself to another Power 5 institution as an assistant coach. She wanted that head-coaching experience. It shows that she has a clear goal and a clear vision and she knows what she wants and she was willing to make whatever moves she needed to make to come back to Tech."
Having accomplished her goal of getting back to Georgia Tech, Morales' next goal is getting the Yellow Jackets back to where she's accustomed to seeing them. She's already gotten a taste of winning at Mewborn Field as a head coach, doing so in late February, when her Highlanders won 2-of-3 games in the I-75 Challenge -- trading shutouts in a split with Georgia Tech, then routing Georgia State.
"It was a surreal experience emotionally to be back on that field but wearing a different uniform," she recalled. "My players at Radford -- I love those kids to death -- it was really exciting to see how much they supported me on the field that day. They were proud to see, `Oh, this is where you got to play.' It was just really, really great having the opportunity to be on that field again. We showed, `Hey, we're going to compete with anybody. Regardless of whether we're supposed to beat you or not, we're out here to compete and we're going to give you our all.'"
That's the mindset Morales wants to instill in the Jackets. The first step began Wednesday night, when she held a conference call to introduce herself to the team.
In that call, she said she'd had a message for the team.
"Be ready because we're going to compete," she said. "Whatever they need to do to get in shape from a physical and mental standpoint because we're going to get after it. We want practices to be hard and I want to bring the best out of them in a competitive environment.
"All my teams have always played the game hard," she added. "I think having a passion for what you do is the one thing that we always talk about. Respecting the game is the other part of it -- being excited about the fact that we get this opportunity every day. So I'm looking forward to seeing a team that plays the game hard. Win, lose or draw, if we're going to go out there, we're going to get after it and compete."
That'll be especially true when the Jackets meet rival Georgia, looking to reverse a trend that has seen Georgia Tech drop nine-straight and 14-of-15 in the softball edition of Clean, Old-Fashioned Hate.
"That's a goal. I loved playing Georgia because I loved beating them," said Morales, who was on teams that forged Tech's series-high four-game winning streak. "The goal is to compete with them. We're competing to win conference championships, that's our goal as well, but it's always fun to beat the Bulldogs."
Being competitive and winning the recruiting battle in Georgia also is a priority.
"The thing that I think made us really successful when I was at Georgia Tech as an assistant coach was our ability to recruit in-state. That's one of my main objectives," she said. "We have to take a look and assess all aspects of the program and begin to build an athletic team that's going to be really versatile.
"We want to heavily recruit in the state of Georgia," she added. "I grew up in Columbus. I'm a recipient of a Hope Scholarship and I went to Georgia Tech because of the amazing degree as well as the amazing athletics. I want the kid that wants that as well. I want the student-athlete who wants to be challenged in the classroom and on the field. There's probably no other university in the southeast that offers the best of both worlds like Georgia Tech does."
Morales plans to name her staff in the coming weeks. Until then, she'll enjoy getting to work and moving in one office over from where she resided as an assistant at Tech.
"I'm humbled to be given this opportunity. It's a dream job for me, something that I had hoped at one point in my career that I'd have an opportunity to have," she said. "Now that it's happening, it's something that I'm going to take a bunch of pride in. I'm really looking forward to building a relationship with the current players. I've had tons and tons of emails from alumni reaching out, which is a great feeling -- people that I played with or that I recruited or that I had the opportunity to coach in my nine years that I was there. It's been a pretty cool, just feeling that love from the alumni and the Georgia Tech fan base."