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Softball Was Worth The Wait For Clemson

(Photo by Melina Alberti/Clemson Athletic Communications)

John Rittman didn’t need to do this.

His status was already secured as one of the great college softball coaches of the early 21st century. In 18 seasons at Stanford, Rittman’s teams had a winning record every year, reached the NCAA Tournament 16 times and the Women’s College World Series twice.

On top of all that, he spent 10 years as an assistant coach for Team USA, helping the American squad win a gold medal at the 2004 Olympic Games and a silver medal in 2008.

But in the fall of 2017, while serving as an assistant at Kansas, he got a phone call he couldn’t ignore.

“Clemson called me and approached me about this job,” Rittman said. “I went home and talked to my wife and she pretty much told me if I didn’t get on a plane the next morning, she was going to kill me. Off I went to Clemson for the interview, and once I got there it was a no-brainer. I knew this was a place where I wanted to be.”

And so it was that Rittman became the first head coach in Clemson softball history—more than two years before the Tigers played their first game. But that doesn’t mean Rittman hasn’t been working hard since taking the job. Clemson had to build its program from scratch, from a coaching staff to a roster to a stadium—a sparkling new facility that broke ground just over a year ago.

Less than a week after accepting the offer, Rittman was on the recruiting trail. He hired Kyle Jamieson, previously the head coach at Furman, as associate head coach. Courtney Breault, who had served under Jamieson at Furman, was later added to complete the staff.

Freshman pitcher Logan Caymol became the Tigers’ first-ever signee only five days after Rittman was hired. Fittingly, it was Caymol, 27 months later, who threw the first pitch in Clemson history, tossing a complete game as the Tigers defeated St. John’s on Feb. 7.

“I knew that no matter who threw the first pitch, it was going to be a win for us because we’ve been preparing for this for so long,” Caymol said. “It was a really cool experience, and I’ll be able to tell my kids and grandkids one day about it.”

Two-thirds of Clemson’s 2020 roster is made up of freshmen, but it’s not like none of them had played together before this year. Seven players, including Caymol, arrived for the 2018-19 school year as redshirts and did live pitching and hitting drills throughout last spring.

The Tigers have complemented their youngsters with six upperclassmen transfers, including infielder MK Bonamy from Notre Dame. Bonamy hit .310 for the Fighting Irish last year and is bringing both veteran leadership and ACC experience to Clemson.

But Bonamy almost never got the chance to be a Tiger. She played in 13 games as a sophomore in 2017 before sustaining a season-ending injury, leaving her barely eligible for a medical redshirt, which allowed her to transfer and play her final year elsewhere after receiving her degree at Notre Dame.

“I’ve been a Clemson fan my whole life,” Bonamy said. “After I found out I was eligible for a medical redshirt, two days later I find out Clemson’s adding a program. It was God’s will saying, ‘This is where you’re meant to be and play your last year.’”

After spending the season’s opening weekend in Orlando, Fla., Clemson christened its home stadium with six games last week. The Tigers played their inaugural home opener on a Wednesday afternoon in less-than-ideal weather conditions, but they sold out the doubleheader against Western Carolina anyway, drawing 1,616 fans to the brand-new ballpark.

The fans who came out all week long were treated to plenty of highlights. Caymol threw a five-inning no-hitter in the nightcap of the doubleheader, as the Tigers won 8-0 via the run rule. Clemson then swept four games from Maryland and Michigan State over the weekend in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, including a 21-2 blowout of the Terrapins on Saturday, in which they became just the seventh team in NCAA history to hit two grand slams in one inning.

Currently 7-5, the Tigers have a chance for a marquee non-conference win on Feb. 26 when they host Georgia, and they will also welcome in Florida State during ACC play.

Rittman said there was pressure on athletic director Dan Radakovich to start a softball program—he said Radakovich received a phone call and an email on his first day on the job asking when he was going to add softball. Now that he has done so, the support from the Clemson community has been instantaneous.

“A lot of our players, even some of our transfers, had never played in an environment like that,” Rittman said. “When you walk in and the scoreboard’s running and the music’s playing and all the pregame activities (are happening), and you get to see a packed house on Opening Day, it’s pretty special.”


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