The Clemson and Erskine softball teams waited patiently for the lights to come on at Southern Wesleyan University’s Varsity Field on Wednesday night.
The in-game delay during the Tigers’ first scrimmage in program history was all of 15 minutes, a short time to endure compared to the wait that Clemson, the softball team and its supporters have gone through on the way to an inaugural season.
“It’s been really hard because we’ve gone a year without seeing our daughter on the field,” said Chad Hyatt, whose daughter JoJo was a part of the Tigers’ first signing class in 2018 that all attended Clemson last year but redshirted. “She’s been playing since she was 6 years old. And not being able to watch her play ... we’ve been following all of our friends and everybody else and going to watch their games — because once it gets in your blood, you can’t get it out.”
The roots for Clemson’s first softball team in school history were planted almost two years ago when John Rittman was hired as the first softball coach in school history in November 2017. The Tigers now have a complete coaching staff, a full roster and their state-of-the-art stadium is almost complete.
It has been quite a journey to get to this point, one with plenty of obstacles along the way. But with fall scrimmages taking place throughout October and the regular season only four months away, the vision Rittman created in his mind when he agreed to coach the Tigers is finally being realized.
“There’s really no blueprint on how to start a softball program,” Rittman said. “It’s very challenging to try to go out and find that first team and to be able to jump right in and compete. ... To see this whole thing come to fruition, it’s really emotional at times.”
As Ansley Gilstrap’s former teammates at USC Upstate were working to improve their resume for a potential postseason berth, she and the rest of her new teammates at Clemson were spending a practice day in late March cooking ribeye steaks.
This was about 10 months after Gilstrap, who is from Blythewood, made the decision to be a part of history and wrap up her college career at Clemson with the Tigers’ brand-new softball team. The senior infielder was one of seven players, a group Rittman called the pioneers, to originally buy into a vision and join a program with no history, no tradition and no stadium.
The seven student-athletes — Gilstrap and six freshmen — spent the 2018-19 school year training, lifting weights and adjusting to college life, all while redshirting before Clemson’s first season in 2020.
“Coach Rittman gave me an awesome opportunity to be here. Starting the inaugural season at Clemson and finishing my senior year here is just an awesome opportunity,” said Gilstrap, whose parents both attended Clemson. “Just the idea of starting a brand-new program is something that not a lot of players get to do. So just to get that opportunity is very unique and enticing.”
With only seven players on the team and no games to prepare for, Clemson wasn’t holding typical softball practices.
The first roster was made up of two outfielders, a pitcher, a catcher and three infielders. There weren’t enough student-athletes to put a full starting nine on the field, let alone hold an intrasquad scrimmage.
Rittman split up his players by position groups and put an emphasis on skill work. There was also plenty of batting practice and situational hitting exercises.
“We really broke it down this year, focused on building the fundamentals. That way we can build the program on good fundamentals and make the program proud from here,” Gilstrap said. “It’s been weird. Everything’s been so, so weird. But you get a lot of conditioning, lots of reps, very fast-paced with it being few players. So you still get a good workout in.”
While most days were spent on the turf practice field beyond Clemson’s baseball stadium, some days Rittman searched for different ways to get the competitive juices flowing.
There was an afternoon when Rittman “split them up into teams and they had to come up with a meal. It was based a lot like Chopped where we based it on presentation and how the meal was cooked and their preparation.”
He also had his players take part in a triathlon-type event one day where they competed in three categories: weight lifting, running and kayaking.
“We did some really creative things,” Rittman said.
As much as Rittman tried to find ways to keep his players engaged and having fun, they admit it was a trying year.
“It was tough last year. I’m seeing all of my friends that were in my class and they’re playing in the SEC and ACC, Pac 12,” redshirt freshman Arielle Oda said. “I was cheering them on but I really wanted to be on the field. So this year coming up, I’m really excited to get to play with my friends.”
Of those original seven pioneers, only four remain on the team. Gilstrap and three high school teammates from Buford, Georgia — Hyatt, Oda and pitcher Logan Caymol are still on board. Two others transferred, while one remains on campus as a student at Clemson but not a softball player.
“We had four that made it through the first year ... and that’s going to happen when you start a program,” Rittman said. “It’s something we worked on to build with recruiting, and to be able to put these 17 athletes together this year is something special.”
Why no softball before?
Caymol, who was the 5A Pitcher of the Year in the state of Georgia as a senior, remembers exactly where she was when she found out Clemson was adding a softball program.
“I was actually in my bed,” Caymol recalled. “My mom called out to me, she yelled, ‘Logan!’ I was like ‘What?’ She said, ‘Clemson’s getting a softball team.’ I literally almost fainted. It’s been the one dream of mine.”
Both of Caymol’s parents attended Clemson, and her grandfather played football for the Tigers. It was her dream school from a young age, but she also realized she would probably have to choose between playing softball in college or attending Clemson.
“My mom and my grandma would always email the athletic director here and be like, ‘Can you please start a softball team?’ I think they finally answered those emails,” she said smiling.
Caymol’s relatives weren’t the only ones with that suggestion for Tigers AD Dan Radakovich.
“It was like the first day that I got here, I got an email from someone asking when we were starting the softball program,” Radakovich recalled. “Whether it was at a Prowl-and-Growl (event) or whether it was at an IPTAY meeting or a football or basketball game, people would randomly come up and say, ‘Hey, are we ever going to get softball here?’ I said, ‘It’s part of the plan. Give us a little time.’”
Before Radakovich arrived at Clemson, the Tigers dropped men’s and women’s swimming and men’s diving following the 2010-11 season but kept women’s diving. Clemson replaced the swimming programs with women’s golf in 2013. In 2017 Clemson cut the women’s diving program as well, and that opened the door for softball to be added.
With the amount of kids growing up in the Southeast playing softball, many of which are Tigers fans, Radakovich felt that adding the sport made sense when there was an opportunity to do so.
“Two hundred of 220 South Carolina high schools play women’s fast pitch softball. So you know that there are an awful lot of people in the state that are interested in the sport... and softball is incredibly popular in Georgia and in Tennessee and North Carolina, so within a tank of gas from here there’s an awful lot of really, really good players,” Radakovich said. “You can notice that by the great programs at Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, North Carolina. They’re all really strong softball programs, and South Carolina as well. We thought that that would allow us to have the means of production to be able to have a really good women’s softball program.”
But starting from scratch wasn’t easy.
Clemson had to crunch the numbers as far as how much as stadium would cost and how much it would be to maintain a program. The Tigers’ new stadium, which is almost complete, came with a price tag of $14 million.
Clemson spent $330,000 on softball in 2018, a number that includes the salary for Rittman, a partial-year salary for an assistant coach, recruiting costs and some start-up costs. That number is projected to finish at $980,000 in 2019, which includes Rittman’s salary, the salary for two assistant coaches, paying a director of operations, recruiting and operating costs.
“Talking to our university and our board was rather easy, because there’s not a member of the upper university administration or a board member that doesn’t have people saying, ‘Why doesn’t Clemson have softball?’ It’s a question that was really difficult to answer,” Radakovich said. “But once we came out and kind of gave our process, the finances would work, the building was in our facility plan, and then how we would build the staff, it was all kind of feathered into the financial plan. Everyone was kind of, ‘Thumbs up, let’s go do this.’”
The 17 players on Clemson’s current roster include eight true freshmen, four redshirt freshmen, three juniors and two seniors. The group doesn’t have a ton of experience, but it has some.
Gilstrap was named first-team all-conference in the Atlantic Sun league as a sophomore and second-team all-conference as a junior. She helped USC Upstate reach the NCAA Tournament in 2016 and 2017, leading the Spartans in hitting in 2017.
Redshirt senior MK Bonamy comes to Clemson after starting all 57 games at first base for Notre Dame a year ago, while Cammy Pereira and Marissa Guimbarda transferred in from Furman. Guimbarda was named the Southern Conference Player of the Year in 2019, hitting .348 with 16 home runs, while Pereira was first-team All-SoCon.
Clemson also has talented first-year players, including Caymol, who was previously committed to a top 25 program in Tennessee; and Oda, who was previously committed to Duke.
“Clemson’s a school that we’re going to recruit nationally. Between three coaches we have networks in recruiting and have lots of contacts,” Rittman said. “We have a lot to sell here at Clemson. We really do. We have great support staff. We have great facilities. We’re building an awesome softball stadium that will have all the amenities for players to be successful.”
Clemson’s success in football has helped grow its overall brand, and it also helps with recruiting that there are plenty of girls who grow up as Tigers fans — like Caymol and Gilstrap — and now have the option of attending their favorite school and playing softball there.
“Growing up I had to choose between softball and going to Clemson,” Caymol said. “Clemson was my dream school. Both of my parents went here and my grandfather played football here. So it’s always been a dream of mine to have Clemson softball to play at. And when they announced the program, I knew that was my goal to play for Clemson softball.”
The Clemson fan base has jumped on board with its support. The stadium will seat about 1,000 fans and there have already been more than 600 season-ticket requests. Approximately 500 fans came out to Southern Wesleyan University for Clemson’s first scrimmage against Erskine on Wednesday. And the excitement for the start of the program should only continue to grow leading into the season opener in February.
The expectations for Year 1 are simple.
“We want to win. That’s our ultimate goal. We want to win championships here. But we want to do it the right way,” Rittman said. “I think the biggest thing is really building our program and culture on a set of core values that will hopefully make this program strong for years to come.”
Oct. 2: Clemson 5, Erskine 0
Oct. 5: Clemson at North Greenville, noon
Oct. 9: Clemson at Anderson, 6 pm
Oct. 17: Clemson at Southern Wesleyan, 6 pm
Oct. 20: Clemson at North Georgia, 1 pm
Oct. 20: Clemson vs Georgia Military, 3 pm (at North Georgia)
Feb. 14-16: Big Ten/ACC Challenge at Clemson Softball Stadium