Staff Photo: Will Hammock Kat Ihlenburg is the first head coach of the Georgia Gwinnett College fastpitch softball program. She coached previously at the College of Charleston.
Kat Ihlenburg was an assistant coach at the College of Charleston for seven seasons before being hired earlier this year as Georgia Gwinnett College's first fastpitch softball coach.
Ihlenburg, who grew up in Nashville, Tenn., played four seasons of softball at Barry College (Fla.) and began her coaching career in Georgia at Reinhardt College. She and her husband Mark now live in Lawrenceville.
In this edition of "Getting to Know ... ," Ihlenburg talks with sports editor Will Hammock about metro Atlanta, her coaching philosophies and her goal of visiting all 50 states.
WH: What's the best thing about living in metro Atlanta?
KI: The best thing about Atlanta is if you want it, you can find it. It is here. You might have to drive to find it, but it is here. I've already been to a Braves game. That was a lot of fun going in the evening. The Braves won in the bottom of the 11th when Chipper Jones hit a two-run, walk-off home run. That was a fun game. I love to be outside and I've found some hiking areas over by Lake Lanier already. Things to do are here, I've just got to find them.
WH: What's the worst part of metro Atlanta?
KI: It's so big. It's huge. I am used to a five-minute commute to anything in Charleston. But you take everything you want for a little bit of headaches sitting around in traffic, or you could have not as much and sit around at the beach all day. I like having things to do. I like the amount of entertainment but also where we live it's still country roads. There are huge farms across the street from our house. I walk outside and there are deer running across our street. But then I was on Lawrenceville Highway a couple of weeks ago, I think the same two deer who hung out in my yard crossed Lawrenceville Highway. I was like, 'You guys shouldn't be here.' But the size here can be a little daunting.
WH: Was softball always your sport?
KI: I was softball through and through. I have younger siblings and my brother played baseball. I liked being better than my brother at baseball. I was always better at baseball. He would try and play softball with me and think he'd be better at softball, but no, no chance.
WH: Did you play baseball, too?
KI: Just in the yard. I have one younger brother who's three years younger and one younger brother who's six years younger. My younger brother who's six years younger is the most competitive person I've ever met. My brother would race to cars in the parking lot and my mom would be freaking out that we were going to get hit. He wants to compete at everything. I would teach him how to play and then his skill level was starting to catch mine when he was in high school and I was in college. But he quit baseball and pursued soccer, so I said, 'OK, I'm still better at baseball than you.'
WH: They tell me you're a pretty fun coach to play for and work with.
KI: I'm pretty entertaining. I like to think so. You can come in here (to my office) and have a tea party. I always have a snack or two. I like to have fun. There are times to be serious, between the chalk is serious. But my personal motto is HAGA, have a good attitude. It's how I live my life. I have fun with it. Combine all business with all pleasure. If I'm going to be at the ballpark, I'm going to make sure we're playing pepper, playing flip. We're going to have some fun in the community. I did something recently with the United Way and they asked, 'Do you think your team would do this?' We were just packing boxes. Heck, yeah. This is a competition. Who can pack the boxes the fastest? Who can move the most boxes? Who can get the most boxes separated? I was like, 'You call us. If you want 20, I've got 20. If you want three groups, I'll give you three groups.'
WH: What traditions are you looking forward to starting at GGC?
KI: One of the biggest things I've always come from is the family aspect of the program. Even up to the big-league level and watching the teams that are most successful, the teams with support systems already built into them, they know how to win no matter what adversity they face. So right off the bat, first weekend, we'll have a family picnic. I did that as a player and as an assistant. I'll continue that here. I would think we'd do a Halloween party. Who doesn't like to get dressed up and carve pumpkins? Certainly the holidays that you're not together with your family, our family will be together as a team. On the field traditions, that will be up to them. I'll let them start those traditions, how we line up for games, what we say before games. But I want to ingrain it so that's what we do for years. Certain things can change. We're in a very unique area, very Christian, very faith-oriented area. If they want to have a team prayer they say before games, that's OK. If they just want to say something about softball and keep faith separate, that's OK. But the team will be able to pick those things.
WH: Do you always see your roster being pretty Gwinnett-heavy with local players?
KI: I do. I'm going to try to keep it as at least a third. I think in softball bringing in girls from different areas expands other players' horizons. I have a young lady coming from the Savannah area who's never lived outside of that area. When she came on campus, she's like, 'There's so much. This is great.' I see campus every day so I'm used to the business and the hustle and bustle. She just thought there were so many people. I want that excitement over our size. But the other day I went to Hebron and had a player sign. She's going to be close to home but she's really going to have her own home now. It only took me 15 minutes to get there. It's nice to have that support system for her.
WH: Tell me about your 50-state journey. How did that get started, trying to see all 50 states?
KI: Alaska's booked. I have a packing list in my bag right now. It started as a kid with softball. There's so many travel tournaments. You can go to 12 states in a summer between traveling through it and playing. By the time I was a junior in high school, we had gone to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and I looked at the map and counted it up. I've lived in eight states, maybe nine now counting Georgia. As a kid, I had been to the whole Northeast, the whole Southeast. I had gotten as far west as I could to the Rockies. When I was in college, it took me to Arizona, Colorado, Nevada and California. Then I was like, 'Wait a minute, I only need to get to the Northwest.' Then it became a small obsession over the last eight years. Last summer I drove to San Diego with a very good friend, so I got to New Mexico. The only reason I did it, Charleston to San Diego, was so I could see New Mexico. People laugh, but it's going to happen. I can print you my plane ticket to Alaska. I will see all 50 states. I'm pretty excited. There will be good stuff in Alaska.
WH: Are you getting a banner or trophy made?
KI: I don't know. I think it's going to be such a letdown when I touch down in Alaska. Oh, what do I do now? I'll have to start bugging (my husband) Mark to go to all the continents. Antarctica's first. Antarctica's going to melt away on us. I have to get there before it melts.
WH: You said you've lived in a lot of states. Did you move around a lot as a kid?
KI: I did. My dad worked with Pepsi corporate so he transferred a lot. All four of my siblings, there's four of us, were all born in different places. We went Virginia, Kentucky, Alabama, Louisiana, North Carolina, Florida, Tennessee. I went to college in Florida, moved to Georgia, worked in South Carolina and then back to Georgia. Over the years, I've lived in pretty much the entire Southeast. My siblings were born in Kentucky, Mississippi and North Carolina. We've lived in Tennessee for 17 years and Tennessee is home. But when I was young, 15 of my years I was moving around. I've met so many people that have lived in the same house with the same friends their whole life, that's tremendous. My best friend is that way. She lives a mile from her parents' house in Nashville. I am perfectly happy to go see the world and tell her about it. She is perfectly happy to tell me about Tennessee and all the great things that are still there. So it can work either way.
WH: What's the good and bad of moving around so much?KI: The best part absolutely is the people and the interactions, and bringing back what I see in the way people live and wanting that to be a part of me. Out west, the people are just so calm. Driving in Los Angeles is hectic, recruiting in LA is stressful, but you get to northern California and those type of people are just so relaxed and have such a serenity to them. Then you come here and people are so kind. To be able to have a relaxed composure to myself, but then know that genuine kindness gets you so far. If you don't go out west, you may not ever experience what they call the laid-back, easy-going lifestyle.
WH: What do you do outside of softball for fun? What's your No. 1 hobby?
KI: My No. 1 hobby I'd say is going outside. I say that with such a broadness. I have a kayak and I'm just discovering the Chattahoochee River. I plan on getting out there with my kayak. In Alaska, we've planned out three different days of hiking. That's what took me to hiking here. I went to REI and talked to a couple of people and they told me where to go. They gave me a list of five places within 45 minutes of my house.
WH: What kind of music are you into?
KI: I have a strange mix. I love the Avett Brothers. I listen to them once or twice a week when I'm in my car. But I love U2. Love U2. I've come to Atlanta twice for U2 concerts when we lived in South Carolina. My husband and I's first adventure was to Miami to go to U2 in Miami. I was baptized in Ireland so I think I have a small connection to them because we're both Irish. Again being a person who wants to be genuine and be kind, I see a lot of their songs having that type of lyrics. They want people to experience kindness and love. They want people to live as one, not I'm from Ireland, I'm from France, I'm from Jamaica. We're all human. We all eat, we all breathe, we all sleep. I try to live my life as closely as I can to that.
WH: How much has recruiting changed since you were being recruited? I'm sure social media is different.
KI: Recruiting when I got recruited, it was truly you took five visits your senior year. You took the top five schools and your list and you went. You made your decision in late October and signed in November. I don't even have what I consider my first team, but my list of kids who are juniors in high school right now is huge. There's already 150 kids. I've only been here three months. And in that time, the junior list and the sophomore list grew exponentially. ... It's just earlier. And Twitter, they've all got one. I have my own. How do you tell a kid, 'I'm going to make you follow me so I can follow you.' But it cleans up a lot of bad stuff they put up there. They get mad. But you really better sleep on that send button. Do not hit send. Give it that 20-minute rule. To me, it's a 24-hour rule. If you have something to say that's so pertinent to say, would you still want to say it in 24 hours? We'll have that rule with the program. If you're mad that you didn't play, that's fine. In 24 hours, you can come speak to me about it. Do not come to me right after the game's over because you're in the moment. You're not thinking through all the things you want to say.
WH: Sometimes kids don't realize or care that their posts are out there for the world to see.
KI: They don't. A Facebook profile picture, I may not be able to get onto your profile, but if your Facebook profile picture is an 18-year-old holding an alcoholic beverage, it's not good. Or even if they're in an area where you know they're not supposed to be, like you're trespassing in a picture. It's goofy that you want to broadcast your rebelliousness to the whole world. It's going to get you in trouble in the end.