Freshly named ACC Coach of the Year John Rittman and Clemson (40-5, 29-5 ACC) finished regular season play with a massive 19-2 revenge win and enter postseason play on cloud nine.
Coming up short of 20 consecutive wins twice in the regular season (17, 19), the broken 19-game win streak against Syracuse on Saturday couldn’t have come at a better time for Clemson. The Tigers now enter ACC Tournament play with a newfound resiliency they haven’t had to muster very often in 2020.
“In hindsight, it probably took a little pressure off of us,” Rittman said in the pre-tournament press conference Tuesday. “You never want to lose a game regardless of the situation or timing of it. But we haven’t really played a bad game all year and as a coach, you kind of wonder when that’s going to happen.
“Certainly on Saturday with an opportunity to clinch the ACC regular-season title, we ended up playing our worst game of the year and ending the winning streak. Disappointed, yes. But we knew that we had bigger goals in mind.”
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After the bout with Syracuse, the final season series became only the third in which the Tigers went into a rubber-match scenario, only falling short once in the first ACC series of the season against No. 14 Virginia Tech.
The No. 1-seeded Tigers will matchup in the second round Thursday at 11 a.m. against No 9. Georgia Tech, who defeated No. 9 Syracuse 6-0 in the tournament's first round.
Rittman and first-ever ACC Freshman of the Year/ACC Player of the Year combo recipient, Valerie Cagle, now must avoid looking ahead.
The Tigers could end up meeting the recent queen's of ACC softball for the first-ever matchup between the programs in the championship round, and Cagle knows the Tigers are on someone else's ground heading into Louisville, Kentucky.
“Facing Florida State would definitely be a good challenge,” Cagle said. “I mean, they haven’t lost the ACC tournament since I think 2013. So, coming in, it’s definitely kind of their territory. So being able to challenge them would be a lot of fun, I think.”
In 28 years of softball in the ACC, the Seminoles have dominated the conference, holding more than half of the total titles at 16. This leaves Clemson in a precarious spot as the new kid on the block, potentially against a team who hasn’t lost in Louisville in the last six tournaments as Cagle mentioned.
Clemson will only get one chance to defeat Lonni Alameda’s Seminoles in the event and that's if both teams meet in the final round of the single-elimination tournament Saturday. Florida State will matchup in the second round against No. 10 North Carolina or No. 7 North Carolina State, and then face either No. 6 Louisville and No. 3 Duke in the semifinals.
“I definitely think the thing that we keep reminding ourselves is, as a second-year program, we’re not we’re not supposed to be here, and nobody expected us to be here,” second baseman Cammy Pereira said on Tuesday’s press conference.
“I never expected this in my entire softball life, that I would actually win a regular-season ACC title, potentially winning an ACC tournament… but when you look back and see the program that coach Rittman has developed and the girls that he’s recruited, it makes sense that we're here where we are.”
Assuming a win in the second round, Rittman and his team would move to face the winner of No. 5 Notre Dame and No. 4 Virginia Tech on Friday.
While the success was surprising at first glance, watching Clemson finish the season has left no doubt as to why they've ended at 40-5 to fans and foes alike. Rittman believes his team is playing with “house money,” when discussing the team’s first-ever postseason on ACC Network’s “Packer and Durham”.
“I think the key is not to let (the postseason) change how we do things,” Rittman said. “We’ve got to continue to play relaxed and have fun. It’s like I told them: we’re playing with house money.
“Nobody expected us to be here, nobody expected this success to happen this quick. Let’s enjoy it, and let’s have fun and embrace it. But most importantly, don’t change what we’re doing. I think that’s the biggest key (moving forward).”
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