Jan. 31—The defending national champions or the last-place team in the conference. Up by 20 runs or down by 20. The Georgia College & State University softball dugout is expected to be of the same mindset no matter what the circumstances.
So far, that is what first-year head coach Kenneth Bellamy is seeing, a team full of players out to help each other achieve the overall goals, not fill their own stat-line.
After the 2023 Bobcat softball season ended at 26-24, a time of transition began. Jamie Grodecki stepped down as head coach after 13 seasons and 355 wins. Bellamy, her assistant for the past two seasons, moved into the top chair of that dugout. One thing about that transition that was quite unusual, one that seems to be defining such changes in other college sports of late, is that so many players opted to remain a Bobcat.
That commitment has been the highlight of the offseason. Bellamy says time and again that without the enthusiasm of the veteran Bobcats towards this program — along with an infusion of new talent — he doesn't know where things would stand as the 2024 season approaches on Feb. 3. That's when there's a round-robin series of home games with Emmanuel and Emory & Henry.
Bellamy came to Milledgeville three years ago after an eight-year career as a head softball coach at the junior college level in his native South Carolina. He was a two-time Coach of the Year winner at South Carolina-Salkehatchie and had 19 All-Region players.
"I knew we were going to go through some ups and downs with any transition," said Bellamy. "The players ... I give all the praise to them. They kept their heads up. They stepped up in so many ways. The fall went well. I think they are as prepared as they can be come Feb. 3."
As part of the fall, GCSU softball welcomed 12 new players but saw just as many return. It's as good a nucleus as any team could have in the Peach Belt Conference. But it's a conference where the bar was set way up in the sky last season when North Georgia won the NCAA Division II national championship.
What does Bellamy have to counter that?
"We have a great mixture of youth, freshmen and upperclassmen," he said. "I think the upperclassmen have helped the freshmen transition. They know, as well as I, that we are going to need them to contribute to help us compete. We are in a tough conference. We want to be up there competing to go to regionals and super regionals. That's where this program was in the past."
Those newcomers are indeed competing, so Bellamy says every job is up for grabs. And that's how they like it. It's not about getting the job, but winning games as a team.
"It's all back to them," he said. "They could have chosen different paths. They stayed here. They know what we're building. If we continue that, the sky's the limit for them. The big thing is they all believe in each other. I like our upperclassmen's maturity. They are not only competing against each other, but helping each other."
Twenty-one pitching wins return to the 2024 team in the duo of Jana Shellhorse and Shelby Jones. Shellhorse struck out 94 batters in 136 1/3 innings and Jones walked only 24 hitters in 118 innings.
"You know what you are getting when they step in there," said Bellamy. "They've come here to do a job ... and they do it. We return Kaitlyn Anders and Golden Thrower and Sydney Lancaster as pitchers. Golden has taken that role of 'Let me get the last three outs.' Kaitlyn can get us out of sticky situations, throw the drop ball, get a ground ball and get back in the dugout."
The staff now includes freshmen Kelsey Parlor of Hazelhurst and Tiffany Caban from Greenbrier High.
"We have a deep pitching staff, and I'm the kind of coach, we are going to use all of them," said Bellamy. "I will use seven if I have to. That is part of the culture we are building. If we can save some innings on arms and get other pitchers innings so they are ready when we go to conference, we are going to use everybody. When your name is called, be ready."
That helpful camaraderie is in the Bobcat bullpen, where one suggests things to another. Bellamy just tells them to throw strikes, stay ahead in counts and no walking batters. He doesn't like walks and isn't too crazy about errors either.
GCSU softball has such depth that the sophomore Lancaster might be pitching more after 45 starts as a freshman infielder. Bellamy said there is so much position depth now that about five spots could be a 'coin flip' on who starts in the first game. He said returning players are working harder as they feel the push from a newcomer at that position.
"It's friendly competition," he said. "I'm seeing them hang out on campus together, going to have dinner together. They are competing for the same spot, but becoming lifelong friends. Talent can take you a long way, but that chemistry is so key in going through the days when we don't play like we should.
"Defensively, I think we are strong all around. We have options. The infield has solidified itself. Our outfield is coming together. Our catchers are phenomenal, great arms. But we know this game is based off failure and mistakes are going to be made. We can't let them pile up. Make an error, move on. I preach to these ladies, 'Don't let one mistake stay with you for seven innings. It's gone. You can't take it to the plate ... the dugout. We move on.' I see that mentality building."
Say Jessica Owens, and it means run production. She had 45 hits, eight home runs, 41 RBI, a .608 slugging percentage and 29 runs. She also walked 31 times, a number Bellamy believes will be lower. He also sees other players looking to gain softball knowledge from her.
"She will let you know it's time to get right," the coach said. "I've seen her mature over these last two years. She has become a different teammate. She has learned to talk to her teammates individually.
"We have players, you want to walk (Owens), now you have to deal with her. That's going to help her get more pitches to hit. That's going to help us produce runs."
Also returning are Emily Hobbs, who led the team in doubles with 11 in 46 games; Kam Caldwell, who hit .331; Maddie Todd, who hit .313; MacKenzie Martin, the leading hitter at .357; and Stephanie Condland, Divinia Checo and Eliza Kuhne, who hit .294 as a freshman in 2022 but missed last year to injury.
"I think they have stepped up to the call," said Bellamy. "Now they want to do even better (than last year). They let the new players understand we're not here for mediocrity."
Outside of pitching, some freshmen to look out for are catcher Isabella Theus, Karlie Gutierrez, a catcher/first baseman and Divinia's sister Reina Checo. Caroline Pollock is a transfer from ABAC and Samantha Wilson transferred from St. Petersburg in Florida.
"Let's go do this," said Bellamy about the team credo. "They are all in it for the right reasons. For Georgia College.
In the Peach Belt, North Georgia brings back its core of talent, especially in pitching. Bellamy said last year they competed with NG well at home but were still learning how to win again. But they can't just circle those games this season, for the Peach Belt also offers a great lineup from Georgia Southwestern State, a Columbus State team that tied North Georgia for first at the end of the PBC regular season, Lander and Flagler.
"Every series is going to be competitive," said Bellamy. "You can't take a weekend off, say we got such-and-such so it's going to be easy. No. We have to take every game the same ... 1 through 56. The game of softball is so tricky and crazy, something could happen, next thing you know you are up by three and down by four. We have to play like it's 0-0."