Clemson softball coach John Rittman inspires NCAA regional win

CLEMSON – This was the most critical point in Clemson’s softball history; a situation impossible to forget. Well, most anyway.

Desperately clinging to a 1-0 lead on defense in the sixth inning with the bases loaded and a Saturday outing against Auburn with an NCAA Regional Championship berth on the line, coach John Rittman walked slowly from the dugout and called infielders around the pitcher. Valerie Cagle.

Rittman won 750 games at Stanford with 16 consecutive trips to Regionals and seven to Super Regionals before coming to Clemson in 2020 to start a program. In this small group, he must have had wise advice, a strategic genius, psychological weapons.

Whatever Rittman said, however, Cagle forgot.

“Whenever one of the coaches comes out, I never remember what he says,” Cagle said. “But when he left we were just very confident. Nobody was worried.”

Cagle, with massive help from the defense, got out of trouble and Clemson picked up a 1-0 victory at McWhorter Stadium to earn a spot in Sunday’s noon title game with two chances to advance to the NCAA Tournament.

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Rittman’s visit worked, and Clemson is back in the Regional Finals, just like last year on its first trip to the NCAA Tournament when it lost to Alabama. But his words of wisdom were blown away by a warm breeze as he returned to the canoe.

Clemson's Valerie Cagle pitched to Boston University earlier this season at Clemson.

“I mean, I remember when I’m there and listening,” Cagle said. “Afterwards, I have nothing.”

Rittman understood.

“It’s a high pressure situation,” he said. “Typically I ask our assistant head coach, Kyle Jamieson, ‘Do you want out or do you want me out?’ If he has anything to say to Valerie in regards to pitch and mechanics, I’ll let him out. But he was just kinda in his pad and in the next pitch. So, I thought to myself.” OK. I’ I go out.’ Basically, the goal is to calm everyone down. We’ve been in this situation before. Slow down the game. Get a ball on the ground. Make sure we take care of the routine plays. Relax and go get it.

Clemson softball defense shines

Clemson made outstanding defensive plays for the first five innings.

Third baseman Maddie Moore charged the line on a slow roll and hopped to first base. Receiver Aby Viera threw a potential base thief as he fell backwards. Second baseman Cammy Pereira stabbed a player on the ground while diving.

In the sixth, Moore knocked down a line drive headed to the corner to turn a double into a single. But then Cagle erred on a pitch to second and a soft jab to the outfield charged the bases.

Time for an effective but immediately forgettable speech from the coach.

Viera saved a run by coming out high from her crouch to catch a fastball that was rising too high. McKenzie Clark ran from deep center to catch a shallow fly ball and landed a strike at home plate. Smooth-ground shortstop Alia Logoleo handled the third out on hot ground that took a tricky jump.

In the seventh, Cagle rounded another misplay on the field.

“We made a few mistakes. I made one,” Cagle said. “They always had my back. McKenzie in the outfield with that hold. These are really fun games.”

Todd Shanesy covers Clemson Athletics for the USA Today Network.