The Good Word | By Jon Cooper
Aileen Morales knows the importance of a good first step.
As a freshman at Georgia Tech in 2005, she led the ACC in stolen bases (44) and she’s still the school’s all-time leader with 154 steals, more than 40 ahead of the next nearest Yellow Jacket (Ashley Thomas, 113).
The importance of that good first step hasn’t changed now that Morales is back on the Flats as head coach of Georgia Tech softball -- nor has her ability to make it.
It was a daunting task but, as “A-Mo” usually was on the basepaths, she was successful.
“One of my mentors, (former Young Harris and current UT Martin Baseball Head Coach) Rick Robinson told me, ‘When you’re a head coach, the hardest thing you’ll ever do is the hiring of assistants,’” she said. “You spend all that time trying to find the right fit for your program and for your staff and there are a lot of pieces that play into all that. It’s just a huge relief to have great quality people, people who are dedicated to coaching and want this to be their career path. It’s great to have them share what my vision is for the future of this program. I really do feel very fortunate to have these people come and be a part of my staff because they’re really quality coaches.”
Morales already has familiarity with all three, having played against Mariconda, who starred at Virginia Tech from 2005-09, then with her on the Puerto Rico National Team, coached against Owen, who toed the rubber at Georgia, then coached Kantor, who at the time went by Kate Kuzma, from 2009-12.
She has great respect for what each brings to the table and sees the staff as a group that can develop the current players with their winning pedigree and attract new talent – especially local talent.
“I think they’ve all been successful,” Morales said. “They’re good instructors of the game. First and foremost we have to be able to develop our players and from the second standpoint, recruit the state of Georgia, heavily. Having ties back to the state was extremely important. Reese has recruited, obviously, at a different region, which is great as well. Alison has been in Mississippi so that brings another region as well. But at the end of the day, having the ties back to the state ultimately was a huge goal of mine.”
All three assistants will be able to coach from experience too, having reached significant milestones on the field themselves.
Mariconda was the only player in Virginia Tech program history to start every game all four years and provided a big bat in leading the Hokies to a pair of ACC Championships and a Women’s College World Series berth, playing third and short. As a coach she helped Radford to a pair of Big South Conference titles and has spent the last five years at Fordham, where the team has been an offensive juggernaut -- last year the Rams set team records for batting average (.310), RBI (351), runs (387), total bases (801), walks (269), and on-base percentage (.409), and became the first team in program history with 200 walks and a .400 on-base percentage -- in winning five straight A-10 Tournament championships and was part of a staff named 2017 NFCA Mid-Atlantic Coaching Staff of the Year.
“Reese is extremely competitive and we’ve known each other since we competed against each other when she was at Virginia Tech,” said Morales. “The teams that she’s worked with, they’ve won championships. They have postseason experience. So that’s extremely valuable. But they’re also taught mechanics very well. From a hitting standpoint she understands not only hitting mechanics but also taking it to the next level, understanding pitch selection and understanding as a hitter, being able to communicate to the players how to attack a pitcher and developing a really good game plan for an opponent.”
Owen was a right-hander who made her mark in the circle, re-writing the Mississippi State record books in only two years. She left as the Bulldogs’ all-time leader in strikeouts (473), strikeouts looking (102), lowest opponent batting average (.193), fewest walks allowed per seven innings (1.05), and most strikeouts per seven innings (8.83). The Newnan, Ga., native pitched her freshman year at Georgia, where she was 13-2 in 32 appearances (five starts), pitching to a 2.58 ERA and limiting opponents to a .228 batting average. She even earned a win over No. 6 Georgia Tech in Atlanta, pitching two innings of one-run, one-hit ball in a 5-4 upset win on April 7, 2010.
She also would pitch professionally for three years in National Pro Fastpitch (NPF) for the Akron Racers, where Thomas currently plays, then serve last season as the Racers’ pitching coach. She also was an assistant coach at East Mississippi Community College.
Morales feels Owen, who holds a Master’s in Kinesiology from MSU, can bring out the potential in the staff that returns a potentially strong triumvirate of senior Emily Anderson, junior Jenna Goodrich and sophomore Brooke Barfield.
“I think they all have great tools,” said Morales. “It’s just a matter of cleaning up some mechanical things here and there and to make them a little sharper. There are some areas that we have to improve in, first and foremost, strike zone awareness. Those are things that Alison and I talked about, how we want to attack that, how she sees developing that with our pitchers. Just improving their overall game awareness will help us dramatically.”
Kantor will help with the receiving side of the battery.
Kantor helped the Yellow Jackets reach the NCAA Tournament all four years, including the school’s only NCAA Super Regional in 2009 and was captain her final two years on the Flats, while twice earning all-ACC, all-ACC Tournament and all-Region honors. Kantor spent last season as an assistant coach for Duke, specializing in defense for catchers and outfielders, while also helping offensively.
Morales sees her holding similar duties back home.
“Kate will assist with day-to-day operations,” she said. “She will work with catchers so she’ll be working real closely with Alison and the bullpen, with both pitchers and catchers, she’ll assist with any pitching, but predominantly with catchers as well as assisting Reese with the outfielders and she’ll help with slapping, kind of take the lead with some of our slappers.
“I definitely got the impression that the catchers needed more instruction. I think that Kate is a perfect person to head that up,” she added. “They’ve got good arms, they’re good catchers but I think a lot of the time catchers get left out so having somebody who is going to really be able to take over and really drill them and make them great is exciting. I think Kate is going to do an amazing job. I told her I would love for her to come join us on this journey to getting us back on track.”
Now with the staff in place, Morales is raring to go in beginning that journey.
“Right now we’re just trying to get them on their strength and conditioning program, just having them be prepared from that standpoint,” she said. “Once we get back, the first week of school, we’ll have weights and some fitness tests just to kind of see where they are. Then in week two we’ll hit the ground running, evaluate where we are as a team from a softball standpoint then we’ll get after it. So it’ll be pretty quick. Once they get here we’ll hit the ground running.”