Clemson softball not letting coronavirus cancellation spoil memories of inaugural season

Valerie Cagle, who hit the first home run ever at Clemson Softball Stadium, was among the nation's home run leaders before the NCAA softball season was canceled. Clemson Athletics

Ten-year-old Madelyn Morphis had two years' worth of perfect attendance until her mom let the softball lover skip school to attend Clemson's inaugural home opener in February.

The familiar hum of an inflatable pitching target hung in the air. Madelyn worked on her arm as her family took in the intricacies of the ballpark. Season-ticket holders collected their posters and commemorative metal tickets before making their way to general admission seating in the grass behind left-center field. In the sold-out crowd, it was the perfect place to catch home run balls.

Clemson's first home run in its brand-new stadium soared off the bat of freshman pitcher Valerie Cagle and rolled down the hill 252 feet. Madelyn raced past fellow fans to retrieve the piece of history, but she kept it only for a moment. Madelyn, a "tough cookie," according to her mom, Lisa, put up a valiant fight before giving up the treasured artifact to the athletic department. In return, she was given a replacement game ball and the opportunity to meet her role model.

After the doubleheader -- a split against Western Carolina -- Cagle stood in the dugout in her socks, fresh off a 2-for-3 performance with three RBIs. She signed Madelyn's ball, posed for a picture and shared laughs and hugs.

"When we got back," Lisa Morphis recalled, "Madelyn said, 'Momma, I hope one day to play for Clemson.'"

In a season that was halted due to the coronavirus pandemic, that type of impact cannot be cut short.

"It is just a reminder of the impact you can have of just being yourself, but also a reminder that people are looking up to you at all times, so you want to represent yourself in the best way possible," junior transfer Marissa Guimbarda said.

Clemson has had an athletics program for over 120 years. Football dominates the school and the NCAA landscape. And yet director of athletics Dan Radakovich had been receiving requests to install a softball program since he arrived on campus in 2012.

This was a season of firsts. The first game. The first win. The first home run. The first no-hitter. Maybe even the Tigers' first NCAA tournament appearance -- until Thursday, March 12.

Players were getting ready for what should have been a routine practice ahead of a weekend series against Georgia Tech. But before they could board the bus, head coach John Rittman got a call telling him the team shouldn't make the trip. Clemson players were spread across the locker room in silence, watching college basketball tournament cancellations pile up on the news. Some players simply lay on the floor as they waited to hear their own fate.

"We had a gut feeling that it was possible we could not go to Georgia Tech that weekend or they may take our season away for some time, but not the entire season," freshman outfielder Alia Logoleo said.

Practice was canceled, then the series. The team consoled one another over a pizza dinner before Rittman called everyone back to the facility to tell them the season was over.

"I remember from the time we had our first meeting to the time we had our second meeting, I had cried, I had become angry, I had left the room and, honestly, I wouldn't have really gotten through that day, I guess, with a clear head if I wasn't with my teammates." Logoleo said. "I was able to hug MK [Bonamy], who was our senior this year, and hug teammates that I knew I probably wouldn't see for a while."

"I had cried, I had become angry, I had left the room and, honestly, I wouldn't have really gotten through that day, I guess, with a clear head if I wasn't with my teammates." Freshman Alia Logoleo

Clemson was picked to finish 10th in the ACC before the season, yet by the time the penultimate USA Today/NFCA Coaches poll came out, the Tigers were 19-9 and received six votes, unranked but essentially 34th in the country.

When Rittman was named head coach in November 2017, he set out to build the program with a mix of young talent and developed leadership. He recruited players to redshirt the 2018-19 academic year as well as true freshmen for 2020 and transfers to add experience and aid in the eventual scholarship turnover.

Guimbarda and Cammy Pereira transferred from Furman, and Bonamy transferred from Notre Dame. There was also the trio of Buford High School teammates Arielle Oda, JoJo Hyatt and Logan Caymol, the program's first-ever commit, who all arrived on campus in the fall of 2018.

Caymol committed to Tennessee as a high school freshman in 2014, but when she heard Clemson was going to add a softball program for 2020 -- even before Rittman was hired as head coach -- the third-generation Tiger jumped at the chance to don the orange and purple. So naturally, she took the pitcher's circle for Clemson's program debut, striking out eight batters in a 6-2 win over St. John's. She also picked up the program's first home win and no-hitter with an 11-strikeout performance.

Though rich in sports, Clemson had to recruit players without a stadium or a record book to tout. Some recruiting visits took place at football games, where prospects could get a firsthand look at the type of culture they could build.

Starting cheers and rituals took trial and error. Oda, dubbed the team's fiery cheerleader, would often start chants and others would follow along. Some would stick while others would be a funny memory. Before taking the field for their home games, they watched their hype video and chanted "C-U" in unison to bring the crowd to its feet.

They high-fived fans after each game, regardless if they won or lost, and would make themselves accessible for autographs and photos. Pitchers were given the option to have a walk-out song for their starts, and Caymol chose "Baby Shark" to have some fun with the crowd.

"None of this was here when we came on our visits," Pereira said in a preseason interview with ESPN. "We were just coming to play for [Coach Rittman] solely based off the promises he was making as a person and as a coach. ... We had to sit down and practice what we are going to do when someone hits a double. As stupid as it may sound, we don't have that and have that ground work.

"We took it as an opportunity for us to set it as a tradition that what is going to be in Clemson softball history forever."

Traditions are one thing. Unity is another. In August, before any meetings began, the upperclassmen called for a get-together at the Mellow Mushroom, a nearby pizza shop. The freshmen all entered as a unit, shocked to find their teammates spaced out at the long table, forcing them to intermingle.

"We were just trying to incorporate the team and try to get to know each other, and it was probably the most awkward meal I've ever had," Guimbarda said with a laugh. "We did the hard work in the fall almost like we developed in the dark. We definitely did develop as a team."

Rittman's priority was to build a lasting culture. He was adamant that wins and losses would take care of themselves. And they did.

Clemson won 11 of its final 12 games of the season and went 14-2 at home. They averaged 1,500 fans per game, which ranked third in the nation.

Among those crowds sat countless young, impressionable girls like Madelyn who finally got a chance to see a visual representation of their dreams personified.

"It was everything I hoped as a mom bringing [Madelyn to the games]," Lisa Morphis said. "She never got tired of it because the girls were so welcoming and loving."

Added Rittman: "I think our players are great role models, first of all, and really, they had a huge impact on girls' softball in this area. For them to be able to sign autographs and be available after games and for the young softball players in this area to see softball played at a very high level was just great."

The Tigers' chemistry was undeniable. They called eating together "family dinner," and it's only fitting Mellow Mushroom was the last meal they shared together in a season that was the start of something special.

While they may now be spread out across the country, the players have been keeping up with each other via constant Zoom sessions. Caymol said talking to her teammates -- her sisters -- now is usually the highlight of her day, as they reminisce on the memories and talk about how they can build upon the foundation in Year 2.

"I think they should remember it as a season where they were pioneers. They made history and they will always be a part of history," Rittman said. "The way they competed and the way they played the game and most importantly, how they conducted themselves on the field, in the classroom, and in the community."