COVID-19 abruptly stopped what was a promising start for the Clemson softball program
John Rittman felt like he was slapped in the face when the NCAA announced last week it was canceling all of its winter and spring championships, including the College Softball World Series, due to COVID-19 pandemic that has swept across the globe.
“It was kind of a shock,” the Clemson softball coach said Friday. “There is no easy way of dealing with adversity like this except you know we are all going to grow better, and society is going to be better after we get through this.
“As student athletes and coaches, you know adversity is something we have to overcome, not only on the field, but in life. If anything, this is a great life lesson for our players, but it certainly does not ease the pain of the season ending so shortly.”
Especially when it was Clemson’s inaugural softball season and the Tigers were off to a 19-8 start to the year, including a 5-1 record in the ACC. Before everything was shut down, Clemson had won 11 of its last 12 games and were the talk of the college softball world.
But just with a snap of the finger, it was all over.
“(The players) did not take it well,” Rittman said. “We were getting ready to board a bus to Georgia Tech and had to call everybody in and tell them we are not going on the bus. So, we had a relatively short meeting just explaining everything was on hold and really the tough meeting was about an hour later when the NCAA made the announcement that the spring season had been canceled.
“That was a very somber moment, especially for our one senior, and all of players, to really comprehend that in a matter of two hours we are getting ready to get on a bus and then our season is over.”
Rittman said he, his players and his coaches were literally in shock when the NCAA made its announcement.
“Certainly, at the time, we did not know everything that we know now,” he said. “But we understand that those decisions were made for the best interest for everybody involved.”
The last game for the Tigers in their inaugural season was a 5-0 victory over Presbyterian at home. It was their 11th win in their final 12 games this year, a year that saw them do some remarkable things as a first-year program.
They won their first ever game on opening day. A few weeks later, they beat then No. 14 Georgia in their first ever game against a ranked opponent and they won their first five games against ACC competition, including a three-game sweep of Virginia.
They also had a 10-game winning streak at one point and went 14-2 in 16 home games. Speaking of being at home, the Clemson faithful embraced the new program. The Tigers averaged 1,500 fans per game, which led the ACC and ranked third nationally in attendance.
“I can’t say we were surprised because we knew we had a lot of talent,” Rittman said. “You just never know with a brand-new program how people are going to mesh and how things are going to work out.
“Certainly, for the first 10 to 12 games of the season, we had some kinks to work out. We had a critical injury before the season even started.”
That injury was to starting shortstop Ansley Gilstrap, who had season-ending knee surgery. Then, during the first week of the season, Clemson lost starting right fielder Morgan Johnson to injury and in Week 2 Madison May, a utility player who had the ability to play in the outfield and infield, was done for the season.
“Right off the get-go, in the first two weeks of the season, we lost three projected starters,” Rittman said. “So, this year was a tribute to our coaches, who did a great job of recruiting and putting this roster together in this first year. We had enough versatility and depth to overcome those injuries.
“Our team, really the credit goes to them for stepping up. Like I said, we had deal with a few ugly games early in the season, games we felt like if we would have played better, we certainly would have won those games. But our players kept working hard and made adjustments, believed in themselves and I think that is the reason why we got off to such a great start. We continued to work hard and ended up playing pretty darn well right when conference season started.”
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