For the Clemson softball team, last season — its inaugural season — was supposed to the special. It was supposed to be celebrated and remembered forever. And it will be remembered forever but not for the reasons it was supposed to be remembered for.
The Tigers opened the 2020 season with a 19-8 overall record, having won 11 of their final 12 contests, including a ranked win over No. 14 Georgia and a pair of ACC series against Virginia and Pitt. They were blistering hot. They had found their groove. But the fairytale plot that had transpired midway through the season was proceeded by a twisted turn. The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic not only abruptly halted Clemson softball’s inaugural season but also the world’s existing perception of normalcy.
On March 12, 2020, the Tigers’ bags were packed, and the team bus waited in front of Clemson Softball Stadium, but no one boarded. Instead of taking a short trip to Atlanta to play in its first-ever ACC road series, Head Coach John Rittman informed his players, initially, that the Tigers were not going to be heading to Georgia Tech. Shortly after the team meeting was dismissed, the news broke over social media. The NCAA had canceled all remaining 2019-20 championships. The ACC then proceeded to cancel all outstanding contests as well, effectively ending Clemson’s first season.
“That was a very somber moment, especially for our one senior and, really, all of our players to kind of comprehend,” said Rittman to a group of reporters during a virtual press conference on March 20. “We were getting ready to get on the bus, and then, our season was over … I think shock is the best word I can use right now — we were literally in shock. Certainly, at the time, we didn’t know everything that we know now, but we understand that those decisions were made for the best interest of everybody involved.”
It was a tough, but necessary, pill to swallow. But fast-forwarding almost one year from then, Clemson softball is poised to make its return to the field in February of 2021.
The Tigers return 16 of the 18 players from the 2020 roster. Clemson will look to fill the void left by MK Bonamy, who graduated in the summer of 2020. Bonamy started in all 27 games at first base and was the team’s leader inside the dugout. However, the Tigers look forward to the addition of Ansley Gilstrap, a senior infielder who was sidelined last year due to a season- ending surgery. Gilstrap, who transferred to Clemson in the summer of 2018, brings three years of playing experience and was also one the Tigers’ leaders inside the locker room, despite not competing last season. Joining Gilstrap in the senior class is Casey Bigham, a transfer from Furman University, where she earned all-conference honors. Bigham started in all 26 games at second base for the Paladins in 2020 and will add depth, most likely in the infield, for Clemson.
The Tigers’ senior class was supposed to consist of four players this season in Marissa Guimbarda, Grace Mattimore, Cammy Pereira and Bailey Taylor. However, on March 30, 2020, the NCAA Division I Council Coordination Committee voted to grant all 2020 spring student- athletes an extra year of eligibility after COVID-19 forced the cancellation of all spring sports. As a result, each returner from last season maintains the same eligibility status from the 2020 season. The upcoming year is likely to be Pereira’s last as a collegiate softball player, as she intends to pursue her dreams of becoming a doctor. Pereira led off in all 27 games for the Tigers at second base and was second on the team in runs scored (21). In 2020, Guimbarda tied for fourth in the nation with an ACC-leading mark of 11 home runs. She also led the conference in slugging (.868) and was 12th in the nation and second in the ACC with 31 RBIs. Mattimore, who played two seasons of collegiate softball at Army West Point in 2018 and 2019, proved to be one of the most effective hitters for the Tigers last season. She hit .333 in 66 at-bats and led the ACC with 10 doubles on the season. She was also second in the league in walks (22) and fourth in on-base percentage (.494), both of which were team bests last year. Taylor made 25 appearances, including 24 games started at third base. In addition to leading the team in assists (41), Taylor recorded Clemson’s first run, hit by pitch, double and sacrifice fly. She also recorded her third career grand slam against Maryland on Feb. 15, helping Clemson become just the seventh program in NCAA Division I history to record two grand slams in a single inning.
Twelve of Clemson’s 25 players classify as either redshirt freshmen or double-redshirt freshmen, which serves as a reminder that like the program itself, the 2021 roster is still very young. Among those freshmen, perhaps no individual stands out more than Valerie Cagle. Cagle is both an ace in the circle and one of the top hitters, if not the top hitter, on the Tigers’ roster. In 2020, she started in all 27 games, including a team-high 13 starts and eight complete games in the circle. As a true freshman, she hit .376 and tallied 10 home runs and five doubles in just 93 at-bats. The Yorktown, Va., native was the only freshman in the country to hit at least 10 homers, which put her 10th in the nation among all players and second in the ACC only to Guimbarda. Cagle was also the only player in the conference to earn ACC Player of the Week more than once in 2020. Cagle, who hit the Tigers’ first of two grand slams against the Terrapins on Feb. 15, was just one of four players in the country to record eight RBIs in a single game in 2020. Additionally, she allowed just three hits and recorded 20-of-21 outs within the infield against the No. 14 Bulldogs in Clemson’s first-ever ranked win.
In addition to Cagle, Clemson returns Logan Caymol, its first-ever signee, and Emma Whitfield in the circle. Caymol went 7-2 on the year and threw a no-hitter in Clemson’s first win inside Clemson Softball Stadium against Western Carolina (Feb. 12). Whitfield went 3-0 and saw a steady decrease in ERA as the 2020 season progressed. She also threw her first career complete game in Clemson’s 11-2 win over Charlotte.
JoJo Hyatt and Abi Stuart are the team’s returning catchers. Hyatt was a workhorse for the Tigers in 2020, starting behind the plate in all 27 games. She also recorded the program’s first triple and sacrifice bunt. Stuart appeared in 14 games, including four starts at the designated player position. Stuart proved to be clutch in the batter’s box on a number of occasions, most notably in Clemson’s Feb. 9 contest against St. John’s, as she homered in the top of the sixth to kick start 15 unanswered runs in the Tigers’ 19-9 comeback rout over the Red Storm.
In addition to Pereira and Taylor, Hannah Goodwin and Kyah Keller are returning infielders. Goodwin was one of the Tigers’ most reliable hitters in 2020. She led the team in batting average (.385), which was also good for second in the ACC, and was ninth in the league in on-base percentage (.448). Goodwin recorded the program’s first home run in its first-ever game against St. John’s on a game-winning shot to the opposite field. She then delivered yet another game-winning homer against Stetson in the Tigers’ only game of the season to reach extra innings. The West Columbia, S.C., native also orchestrated a nine-game hitting streak, which spanned Feb. 22-March 9, and recorded at least one hit in 22-of-26 games played. Keller served as Bonamy’s backup at first base last year but will likely see her role increase this season. A power hitter from Hollywood, Ala., Keller has had a stellar offseason, according to Rittman, and will compete for the starting job at first base.
Perhaps, where the Tigers have the most depth is in the outfield. Clemson returns five redshirt freshmen who played in the grass last year, including Alia Logoleo, Arielle Oda, Carlee Shannon, Morgan Johnson and Madison May. Logoleo, who missed the first six games last year due to a torn labrum, recovered nearly two months ahead of schedule and was arguably the most improved player over the course of the abbreviated season. She hit .345 and posted four doubles and a team-high two triples. Logoleo also recorded a seven-game hitting streak and posted seven stolen bases on the year, good for second on the team. Oda, a lefty slap hitter, made 24 appearances, including nine starts, and can play both infield and outfield. In 2020, she achieved an on-base percentage of .476. Shannon serves as the team’s primary pinch runner. Last year, she recorded a team-high nine stolen bases, which tied for ninth in the ACC. Both Johnson and May missed the bulk of 2020 due to season-ending surgeries. Johnson had started in all four appearances before suffering an ACL tear in Clemson’s fifth game of the season, while May had appeared in six games, including four starts, before undergoing an upper-body surgery.
Rittman and the Tigers also welcome the addition of seven true freshmen in Jaden Cheek (INF/UTL), McKenzie Clark (OF), Ansley Houston (INF), Sarah Howell (C/UTL), Carsten Puckett (RHP/IF), Regan Spencer (RHP) and Millie Thompson (LHP/INF). Collectively, the incoming freshman class, which was ranked 14th in the nation by ExtraInningSoftball.com and No. 24 by FloSoftball.com, includes three top-100 prospects in Cheek, Clark and Howell. Additionally, Clemson was the second-highest rated class in the ACC and one of four ACC programs in the top 25, according to ExtraInningSoftball.com.
“We are extremely excited to get back on the field again and compete,” Rittman said. “We know this is a new team with new challenges and opportunities that lie in front of us, and we can’t wait to get started on our journey. We have to take it one day at a time and focus on the task at hand. If we can do that, we absolutely have the ability to be successful on the field, but it starts with our mindset each and every day.”