It would be a big win for Georgia State softball, if only they could end the threat. And it relied on the right words delivered by pitching coach Mackenzie Popescue.
The Panthers clung to a 2-0 lead over the South Alabama Jaguars in the top of the seventh. There were two outs. A double by Jaguar center fielder Amanda Minahan put two runs in scoring position, with left fielder Haleigh Lowe on third. That hit came on a 2-2 count. It was also South Alabama’s first hit of the ball game. Peyton Worsham, a freshman from Hillgrove High School in Powder Springs, GA, in just her third career start, came within one strike of a no-hitter against the preseason third-ranked team in the Sun Belt.
And it was up to Coach Mack (not Coach Pop – that’s the guy in San Antonio) to calm her pitcher enough to salvage the win.
But the task wasn’t really that hard. “She (Worsham) was on a mission,” Coach Popescue said later in the week. “She was focused the entire time. I told her ‘Now you can breathe.’ That relaxed her a little bit.”
It did the job. The next batter, third baseman Savanna Mayo, flied to right fielder Reagan Morgan on the first pitch, ending the threat, and the game. Georgia State won the Sun Belt opener. The Panthers took the next two games, 11-3 (run ruled after five innings), and 4-3 to sweep the Jaguar series. Worsham also got a win in the 4-3 game as she gave up 3 earned runs in five-and-a-third innings.
It was this just kind of deft touch that has worked wonders with Georgia State’s staff. Going into this weekend’s series with Troy, Georgia State has a team ERA of 2.95. The Panther’s record is 16-9, and it features wins over Power 5 teams such as Mississippi State, Kansas, and Illinois. Those wins will only bolster the teams’ RPI down the road. There is still work left to do, and it sits on how Popescue handles her staff.
It is a strange road that started in Tempe, Arizona, outside of Phoenix. Popescue was a national champion with Arizona State, and finished her career with 59 wins and three no-hitters. She graduated in 2014 and immediately headed east to Atlanta to start her coaching career with Georgia State.
Credit diligence for her journey. “I applied everywhere,” she said about her quest for a job. “D 1, D2, Juco, NAIA, hundreds of different places. I found openings, and I applied.”
While she inundated the Internet and the United States Postal Service with applications, eventually one of those found its’ way to the desk and computer of Panther Head Coach Roger Kincaid. It caught his eye. “She pitched at a high level,” he said. “She went to the College World Series and made our short list.”
She got the job, and both have been happy with the results. “It’s been a lot of fun,” she said of working with Kincaid and her time with Georgia State. “He lets us speak our minds, and we still love each other. It’s made moving to Georgia a lot easier.”
Coach Kincaid seconded it. “We’re glad to have her and her youthful enthusiasm here. She’s been to where (the College World Series) we want to go. She understands and relates to our staff (as she graduated a few years ago) .”
Her charges have bought in. “Mac is an extremely patient coach,” said junior Annie Davis. “She always knows the right words that will motivate us while we’re in the circle.” Davis is a transfer from Wisconsin and a native of Paradise Valley, another suburb of Phoenix.
In advising freshman pitchers such as Worsham and Emily Soles, who attended Prince Avenue Christian in Bogart, GA., she stresses game speed. “Freshmen don’t realize how fast the college game is,” she said. “You have to be mentally focused the entire game.”
When Popescue looks to recruit pitchers, she wants to see something unusual. She wants to see them fail. Or, to be more accurate, what they do next. “Do they get angry, or do they give in? How do they react to adversity? You want to see their techniques.”
In that regard, Worsham goading Mayo into the game-ending fly ball was exactly what Coach Mack wanted to see.