Clemson Signees Ready To Be Building Blocks For Tigers
McKenzie Clark had seen plenty of college coaches converse with her Tampa Mustangs coach T.J. Goelz many times before. This time was different, however. The pair of men talking with Goelz were wearing orange shirts that had a purple paw print on them.
Goelz approached Clark later that day and asked her, “What do you think about Clemson?”
She had never heard about the school’s softball team. That’s because the two men who spoke to Goelz, Clemson head coach John Rittman and associate head coach Kyle Jamieson, were starting one. As soon as Clark heard that, she was sold.
“That sparked my interest completely,” Clark told Softball America during a phone interview. “I was emailing (Rittman), telling him when my next games were. When I was able to talk to him and go up on a visit, I loved it, I fell in love immediately.”
Clark, a Florida native, thought she had her heart, mind and soul set on Gainesville and the Gators before Clemson landed her in its 2020 recruiting class. She wasn’t the only one.
North of Clark, Millie Thompson in Virginia had been committed to Clemson since eighth grade, but it wasn’t her first commitment. Thompson had previously pledged to James Madison, a school that she loved, a coaching staff she adored and a place close to home. Nevertheless, Clemson offered something James Madison could not: an opportunity to lay the foundation for a program.
“They approached me at a tournament and I was very iffy about it because I loved JMU so much. It was one of the hardest decisions I ever had to make. I decided to go for it, it was a gut feeling and I’m really glad I did,” Thompson told Softball America during a phone interview. “I liked the idea of building a program. I really wanted to make history and I think that was a once in a lifetime opportunity.”
Clark and Thompson are included in Softball America’s 2020 Top 100 recruits and already signed with Clemson back in November, before the Tigers had even played a game. That didn’t scare either of them because they understood what was in store.
Despite the season being cut short, Clemson’s 19-8 record in its inaugural campaign proved them right.
“I found it exciting, especially when I did sign and we’re watching Clemson softball all over ESPN and doing so well,” Clark said. “I had a couple of friends like, ‘Wow, they’re actually really good this year.’ Some of my friends were doubting that they weren’t going to do well their first year, but I knew deep down they were going to do great because I know how hard they work and how Coach Rittman pushes them.”
It’s been a long wait for Thompson, and her excitement was felt over the phone.
“I’ve been waiting for that moment for five years,” Thompson said. “In general, I was ready to get started and sign it. I wasn’t worried, I know they’ve been working hard. They’ve done so much to prepare. I’ve seen the behind the scenes and I see how hard they work. For a first-year team, they did a great job all the way around.”
Rittman, as any other college coach, has to wear his salesman shoes in order to land a few of the nation’s top prospects. He did it by instilling the idea of family. Rittman knows the families have been a huge part of the girls’ journey through softball. He asks Thompson about her two-year-old brother all the time. That made a difference in Thompson's decision.
The other remarkable thing was that Rittman was able to sell his program without a stadium.
“He’s very visionary,” Thompson said. “He put me on a really great visit. He was very thorough in explaining how this is going to be and all of that. That really helped me because it’s really hard to take someone to a field and show them this is where your stadium is going to be. He explained it, showed me pictures. He helped me see what this program was going to turn into. That was what struck my eyes with him, and he did everything he promised.”
Rittman is just as excited to welcome the pair to Clemson as well.
“We are excited to have both Millie and McKenzie along with all of our 2020 class join our family,” Rittman said in a statement. “Both are competitive and talented players who will complement and improve the quality of our team both on and off the field.”
It was no secret to the softball community that Tiger fans filled Clemson Softball Stadium over and over in 2020. Clark and Thompson were able to attend home games this season and were able to see first-hand the immense support the program received.
Clark’s visits included a Firehouse Subs employee making her and her dad feel at home in Clemson, reassuring them how supportive the city is of all students and being able to snag a photo with Clemson football coach Dabo Swinney at one of the softball games.
“My mom was just shocked at how many people were there. ‘This is going to be you next year,’” Clark said. “My family and I were just super excited about how many fans came out to those games...We thought it was cool that other sports were supporting softball.”
Thompson had a similar feeling, but what she saw spoke more into the future for Clemson softball.
“I’m going to be playing and being supported by this many people,” Thompson said. “That is outstanding and so exciting. What really struck me was how many young fans they had, how many young softball players were supporting and wanting to be a part of this. That’s how you grow a program.”