Clemson softball coach John Rittman came to Clemson in part because he believed he could build an ACC contender in the Upstate.
But not even Rittman expected Clemson’s success to happen this fast.
“Obviously it’s happened a little quicker than anybody would’ve thought,” he said.
In Year 2 of its program, Clemson is currently ranked No. 20 and is second in the ACC entering this weekend’s series with conference leader and 11th-ranked Duke. The Tigers are 12-2, a half game back of the 12-1 Blue Devils in the ACC standings.
Clemson is riding a 17-game winning streak, while Duke has won 18 straight heading into Friday’s series opener at McWhorter Stadium. No other ACC team is currently on more than a 3-game winning streak.
“It’s going to be a great series. We’re looking forward to the challenge of facing them,” Rittman said. “We have depth within our pitching staff and so does Duke. We have a good hitting team. We can score runs in a variety of ways, and so can Duke. So we match up pretty well.”
The Tigers have matched up pretty well with just about everyone they have faced so far this year.
Clemson dropped a series to Virginia Tech 2-1 the second weekend of the season. Since then, the Tigers have won 17 straight, while sweeping Georgia Tech, Virginia and Louisville along the way.
So how does a program go from no facility or coaches four years ago to being one of the best in the ACC? Hard work, a strong staff, a group of players who believe. And of course a little bit of luck.
“When you build a program there’s no laid-out plan of exactly how to do it. There’s no blueprint,” Ritttman said. “Our main objective was to start with the foundation of building a really good culture and implementing our core values and not worrying about the wins and losses but worrying about building a solid foundation. With that has come the early success with our program.”
Keys to success
Clemson’s first recruiting class arrived on campus in the summer of 2018. Not only did the program not have any history, there wasn’t even a stadium yet. It didn’t start getting built until that December.
The group redshirted, worked out on the turf practice field beyond the baseball team’s Doug Kingsmore Stadium and began laying the foundation for what was to come.
Rittman continued to build the roster up with the 2019 recruiting class, adding a mix of transfers and high school players who believed in his vision. It was a challenge, because many of the top players around the country had already committed by the time the Tigers had a staff in place and were out recruiting.
“We had to search the world for talent and turn over every rock and look at every avenue to get kids to come to Clemson,” he said. “Once you get the ball rolling it’s about sharing, ‘Hey, this is the facility we’re going to build, this is our plan, this is what we want to accomplish.’ I think once we laid that vision out to recruits it became easier to sell.”
One of the most important recruits Rittman added was two-way player Valerie Cagle of Yorktown, Virginia.
The redshirt freshman is second on the team with a .362 average, leads the Tigers in doubles with 6 and is second in home runs (6) and RBIs (19).
On the mound, she’s 12-1 with a 1.00 ERA. Cagle has 91 strikeouts in 83 2/3 innings pitched.
“Just being a part of something brand new, not many people get the opportunity to do that,” Cagle said. “So that’s something that was really, really hard to pass up on.”
Other players who signed with the Tigers our of high school who are contributing early on in their careers include McKenzie Clark, Morgan Johnson, Abi Stuart, JoJo Hyatt, Arielle Oda, Alia Logoleo and Kyah Keller.
In addition to signing high school recruits, Clemson has also had success with transfers, including the top hitter on the team.
Marissa Guimbarda leads the Tigers in hitting (.373), home runs (7) and RBIs (23). She came to Clemson after a pair of seasons at Furman.
Key contributors Ansley Gilstrap, Casey Bigham, Cammy Pereira and Grace Mattimore also transferred into the program.
“We got lucky with getting some kids here. That’s part of it,” Rittman said. “The NCAA opened up the transfer portal, and before that you had some transfers but it was usually for extenuating circumstances. Now kids can transfer just by putting their name in the portal and maybe taking a chance. So we definitely used that as a huge component of getting players into our program.”
Once the players are in the program, the next step is developing them and coming together as a team.
Clemson’s team chemistry and culture has been a big part of the success.
“We haven’t put an emphasis on the winning. We’ve put an emphasis on how we do things on a day-to-day basis and how we prepare and how we work in the classroom and off the field and really take care of those things,” Rittman said.
It starts with our character and our work ethic. We have to be passionate about what we do every day. It’s about having a purpose and following through. The biggest thing is becoming a team, you have to have team work. That’s one of our core values is really developing the team, the team culture, the team atmosphere, and then working hard on the field.”
In the immediate future, Clemson’s focus is on a huge series with Duke this weekend.
The two teams will begin a four-game series with a doubleheader Friday afternoon, beginning at 3. Game 3 is scheduled for Noon Saturday, with Game 4 at 4 p.m. Sunday. The final two games of the series will be shown on the ACC Network.
“The biggest thing is we’ve got to keep it simple, trust our preparation and do what we do. If we go out and play the game versus play against the opponent, I think we’re going to be fine,” Rittman said. “For a young team that hasn’t played with this much attention it’s certainly new, it’s different. But we’ve got to embrace that and understand that’s part of being a great program now and having success.”
As for the long term, Rittman is hoping to continue to build the program into one of the best in the nation.
The Tigers have a solid foundation in place, which should help with recruiting once the dead period ends. And several key players are freshmen.
“We can’t wait to go out and recruit and build on the success that we’ve had,” Rittman said.
He also can’t wait to bring recruits on campus to a place where he is thrilled to be.
“This community and this town fits me very well. … I just fell in love with it. My wife loves it. It’s been a great fit,” Rittman said. “There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t pinch myself and feel very blessed to be the head coach of this program.”