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Nov 03, 2022

The First Five, The Next Five

By: Valerie Johnson

Rome wasn’t built in a day.

Clemson learned firsthand the reality of that statement when the athletic department announced the addition of a softball program in March of 2017. What the Tigers have been able to accomplish since inception is nothing short of incredible: Clemson already boasts an ACC Regular Season Championship, two NCAA Regional appearances and a Super Regional appearance, as well as numerous individual accomplishments in the two-and-a-half years the program has been on the field.

To help build the foundation of the strong program the public sees today, the next step was to find a dynamic leader who was up for the challenge of starting from scratch, and Clemson found that by hiring John Rittman as head coach.

“When I was approached by the search committee,” said Rittman, “I knew there wouldn’t be any hesitation on my part to accept the job. My family and I fell in love with the location, the campus and the people. When I was officially offered the job, it sounds cliché, but I was definitely ‘all in’ with building this program and sharing the vision I had of where our program could go.”

This wasn’t Rittman’s first time around the block when it came to building a softball program from the ground up. He helped build Washington’s program brick-by-brick in 1992, so he knew how crucial it was to find the right people for his assistant coaches and what it would take to get the Clemson community to buy in to a new program.

That first year, Rittman could be found speaking to Rotary Clubs, alumni groups and anyone else that would let him talk about softball. He would go out and sell the program and his vision to get them excited. It didn’t take much convincing before the Clemson community fell in love with the sport of softball. With over 250 high schools in the state of South Carolina with softball programs, the community was primed to have one within its grasp at the collegiate level. Once he added associate head coach Kyle Jamieson and assistant coach Courtney Breault to his staff, Rittman knew he had something special brewing with the program.

When reflecting on that year, Rittman remembers one of the main objectives was also getting a state-of-the-art facility built that would house the future softball student-athletes. The staff was selling recruits on “being a part of history” and that was coming to fruition as they watched what is now McWhorter Stadium come alive. Rittman reflected on those initial moments stating:

“I remember that first year when we starting practicing on the baseball turf field that sits behind our current stadium with the seven players on our roster. As we practiced, we literally watched the stadium be built before our eyes. To see it all come together and then play in it that first year, there really is no other feeling like it. Watching it all come together and see our stadium finally completed and then to get the fan support in that first year was phenomenal.”

With the excitement building, Rittman and the Tigers were ready to hit the field for the inaugural season in the spring of 2020. As with any new program, there was a long list of firsts: the first at-bat, the first hit, the first pitcher to get a strikeout, etc. The team began to hit its stride in early March, going 19-8 in its first 27 games before the global pandemic hit, cutting the season short. As much of a disappointment as it was to see the season end, Rittman believes everything happens for a reason.

“We came back in 2021 more focused and more appreciative of the opportunities that were given to us. The 2020 season was a great experience, but we had unfinished business that needed to be completed. We knew we weren’t going to sneak up on anybody in that second season.”

The 2021 team may not have snuck up on anyone, but they did continue to make strides that very few people could have anticipated. The 2021 season saw the program reach unparalleled benchmarks that included becoming the first ACC program to earn a regular-season championship in its first full season, Rittman reaching 800 career wins as a head coach and being named the ACC Coach of the Year and freshman pitcher Valerie Cagle being the first player in ACC Softball history to be named Player and Rookie of the Year in the same season.

The 2022 season brought on its own set of expectations and pressures. Still, the team found a way to excel and took another new step as the program hosted an NCAA Regional in its second-complete year, sold out that Regional and swept three opponents without allowing a run to advance to the program’s first Super Regional.

“When I reflect on all the special memories, I’ve learned to appreciate everything we have accomplished in our program’s short history. I certainly appreciate the good times but also the emotional ups and downs of starting a program. All the milestones mean is that I’ve found a career I enjoy and have hung with it for 35 years. All of these milestones are possible because of the outstanding players, coaches and administrators that I’ve had the opportunity to work alongside. It’s also because of the wonderful support system that I have at home from my family. I’ve learned to appreciate the longevity of my career and feel blessed and fortunate to be where I am today.”

Following the successful 2022 campaign, Rittman signed a five-year extension that puts him at the helm of the program through the 2027 season. After coaching for 35 years, Rittman knows where he wants to continue to grow as a coach.

“Since arriving at Clemson, I’ve put a strong focus on the relationship side of coaching. I get to enjoy the little things that come with engaging our players at practice every day. We’ve been able to grow our staff at Clemson which has allowed me to take on a new role in helping young coaches further learn and master this game, which is extremely special.

I want to further build upon the relationship model of coaching. I’m a firm believer in the cliché ‘the players don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.’ The older I get, the more I’ve bought into that and appreciate the relationships I’ve developed because of coaching. As a program, I hope in the next five years we continue to build our culture in a positive way, to recruit top-notch athletes that love Clemson and to live by our program’s core values. We can’t get caught up in our record or outcome goals, but rather we need to stay true to who we are and our day-to-day performance goals.”

As the 2023 team prepares to take the next step heading into the season, Rittman is adamant about staying present and worrying only about each day as it arrives. He tells the team to never look too far into the future.

“Obviously we have to have a plan in place and prepare for what’s to come in the future. We need to stay focused on the present and not dwell on the accomplishments of our past or worry about the expectations of our future. There is a reason we got to this point in our program’s short history, and we must remain hungry. We need to stay true to our core values, continue to work on our culture and our work ethic while striving to take that next step.

If we start looking too far into the future, we add more stress on top of the already daunting expectations that have been put on our program. I think the biggest thing is to enjoy where we are at. Enjoy our team. Enjoy the day-to-day grind to get to where we want to be.”

And, as Clemson gets set to launch two new programs – lacrosse later this athletic year, and gymnastics in 2023-24, Rittman’s softball program has become a model for how to build the right way. The community support and administrative buy-in have set high expectations that resonate within the locker room and around the nation.

March 2023 will mark six years since softball was announced at Clemson. For a program to take root, it takes a lot of patience, care and dedication. Rittman has seen the Clemson program from its infancy, and while the results have begun to pay off on the field, it’s the future that remains brightest. Clemson is already set to expand McWhorter Stadium because of the strong foundation Coach Rittman built during his first five years at the helm of the program. Rittman and the Tigers will look to build upon this as they climb into the next five.