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Littlefield surprises with power, speed for national contender GGC

Cassidy Littlefield, a junior at Georgia Gwinnett College, is among the top five in the NAIA in eight statsitical categories, including stolen bases (43) and triples (8). (Photo: GGC Athletics)

Cassidy Littlefield, a junior at Georgia Gwinnett College, is among the top five in the NAIA in eight statsitical categories, including stolen bases (43) and triples (8). (Photo: GGC Athletics)

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Junior Cassidy Littlefield leads Georgia Gwinnett College in batting with a .486 average and is among the top five performers in the NAIA in eight statistical categories. (Photo: GGC Athletics)

The numbers speak for themselves.

Outrageously.

Cassidy Littlefield leads the NAIA in at-bats per game and is among the top five in seven other categories, including hits per game (1.872), total hits (88), stolen bases (43) and triples (eight).

She finished the regular season with a .486 average. And was disappointed.

Littlefield, a junior at Georgia Gwinnett College, was hoping to hit the .500 mark. Not that she looks at the stats during the season.

“It’s just not my mentality,” Littlefield said. “I don’t look at my stats because I don’t want to go up to bat thinking I’ve got to get this hit to keep it up. Or if I don’t, my average is going down. I just go up to the plate every time with a clear mind.”

But make no mistake, when the final games were added up, Littlefield wanted to be just a little better.

Because that’s what she’s used to.

Littlefield batted over .500 as a junior and senior at Slocomb (Ala.) High School, where she was moved to varsity the same year she started playing softball — as a seventh-grader. She did the same in junior college at Enterprise State.

Grizzlies head coach Kat Ihlenburg had a hard time believing the stats when Littlefield expressed an interest in coming to GGC.

“I remember looking at the numbers and thinking this is a joke,” Ihlenburg said. “There’s no way that you’re hitting this well, with these type of numbers. Something’s not right.

“Then I went and watched her play.”

It became clear there was no mistake.

“She hit a ball to left field, just a routine single,” Ihlenburg said. “Standing on first, next pitch, she steals second. The catcher didn’t even have time to blink and she’s standing up on second base. Next pitch, she steals third. Next pitch, a ground ball hit to second base and she scores.

“It was a four-pitch evolution to go from home to home.”

Ihlenburg didn’t talk to Littlefield after that game, didn’t even let her know she came to watch.

“I had my team recruited,” Ihlenburg said. “If she was serious about coming to Georgia Gwinnett, she would be a wonderful addition.

“I left that game thinking, ‘I hope she calls me, but if she doesn’t, OK.’”

Littlefield called two weeks later and it was her persistence, just as much as her talent, that had Ihlenburg bringing her in for a tryout.

Littlefield readily admits there were nerves.

“I could have done better,” she said.

Which is pretty much what she always thinks.

“There’s always that one more step you can take to be better,” Littlefield said.

Ihlenburg had no doubts though.

“She hit the ball really well that day,” Ihlenburg said. “She didn’t think she did. She was nervous, I could tell. But she did whatever we asked her, was very respectful.”

Ihlenburg didn’t pull any punches with Littlefield. She wasn’t going to play third base, where she had been in JUCO, for the Grizzlies.

“I told her, ‘The third baseman I have, I’ll be honest, there’s no way you are going to beat her out,’” Ihlenburg said. “You just need to come in with the attitude of where can I play and try.’

“She said, ‘Oh, Coach, that’s what I want. I just want a chance to play.’ The more we talked, the more I knew she understood the effort I’m going to ask.”

The team needed a first baseman and Littlefield embraced the opportunity.

“It’s still an evolution to learn it, but she learned it very quickly,” Ihlenburg said.

Her plate performance has also evolved — though it started at a fairly high level.

“It’s just getting into the groove,” Littlefield said. “Softball is all about inches. There’s times you miss the ball by an inch and you hit a pop-up. Or there’s times when you hit deep center perfect and it’s a line gap. Those are the tweaks you have to make to get in your groove. But once you’re in your groove, you’re going.”

Littlefield had a pair of hits in the season opener and at least one in the next three games. But it was about the middle of March when she really started to light it up.

“At the beginning of the season, she was learning a little more of bunting from the right side and I think that’s where she thinks her slow start was,” Ihlenburg said.

Littlefield’s power was actually hurting her in those situations. The bunts were too hard and turned into routine groundouts.

“She hits the ball so hard it’s frightening to be on the receiving end of it,” Ihlenburg said. “But she really embraced the idea of, ‘I can get them on their heels when I bunt. Then when I swing away, I mean, it’s like a lumberjack chopping down a redwood.’ It’s incredible to watch the force with which she hits the ball.”

Littlefield led off three straight games with home runs this month. First in a doubleheader against Agnes Scott and then the next game vs. Montreat.

“That’s when I really realized, man, she is special,” Ihlenburg said. “And her very next at-bat, she’ll bunt.

“That’s where she’s really gotten in the head of defenses. Because they go, ‘Well, she just hit the tar out of that ball and she’s going to stick her bat out and beat it out. How can I defend against this?’”

Once she’s on base, Littlefield continues to be a threat.

“The only goal I set for her for the season was to get her to 40 stolen bases,” Ihlenburg said. “I did not expect the home run potential out of her. I thought she would be a bunter and a doubles hitter. The fact that she hits triples and home runs, it’s like good grief.”

In a game two weeks ago against Coastal Georgia, Littlefield ripped a ball to left center.

“She hit the ball so hard, the short stop couldn’t even react,” Ihlenburg said. “The umpire was in the way and he had to dodge the ball.

“Left center is the shortest of all throws to get back in to third base — and she hit a triple. It speaks to her speed, her aggression on the bases.”

It all comes with an element of surprise, too.

“She does not look like Jackie Joyner-Kersee or Lolo Jones,” Ihlenburg said. “Some people who are fast look fast. Cassidy does not. But she just gets her feet underneath her so quickly.”

Underestimating her is fine with Littlefield. Just like it’s fine with her that many people are underestimating the Grizzlies in this week’s Association of Independent Institutions championship tournament.

“Having almost 40 wins is a big accomplishment,” Littlefield said. “For them not to include us in 1, 2 or 3 (seeds), people are just going to be surprised when we come in and dominate the tournament.”

GGC lost back-to-back games just once this season and it was in February.

“We hate to lose,” Littelfield said. “You might get the best of us one game, but that second game, we’re coming out hungry.”

The double-elimination tournament starts Thursday at the Grizzlies softball complex in Lawrenceville.

Six teams are competing for two automatic berths to the NAIA national tournament. The field includes two of the nation’s top five teams in LSU-Alexandria and California State University San Marcos. The third seed is the University of Houston-Victoria, which is also in the top 25.

GGC, in just it’s second season, is the fourth seed and opens the tournament against Lindenwood University-Belleville at 1:30 p.m. Thursday.

“People are underestimating the desire the team has, the determination to say, we’re not just a flash in the pan,” Ihlenburg said. “The program is established. We know what we want.”

Littlefield will be be critical to the Grizzlies success — though she won’t take any credit for it individually.

“She’s the energy and the spark plug of the team,” Ihlenburg said. “There aren’t a lot of people who can prove you wrong time and time and time again. Athletically she does that. But there’s more to it than that.

“The person she is on the field has kind of elevated the program to a level that blows my mind.”

A few weeks ago, Littlefield had a phenomenal game on a road trip in North Carolina. Ihlenburg offered to let her pick where the team ate for dinner.

Littlefield said it was up to everyone.

“I want to give her the reward — hey, you did something really well,” Ihlenburg said. “She said, ‘No, Coach, I didn’t do well. The team won.’

“She’s so humble. She’s such a fun player to coach.”

AII SOFTBALL TOURNAMENT

When: Thursday-Saturday

Where: Georgia Gwinnett College, Lawrenceville

Tickets: $5-7

Schedule:

Thursday

Game 1 — (3) Houston-Victoria vs. (6) British Columbia. 11 a.m.

Game 2 — (4) GGC vs. (5) Lindenwood-Belleville, 1:30 p.m.

Game 3 — (2) Cal State San Marcos vs. winner of Game 1, 4 p.m.

Game 4 — (1) LSU-Alexandria vs. winner of Game 2, 6:30 p.m.

Friday

Game 5 — Loser Game 2 vs. loser Game 3, 11 a.m.

Game 6 — Loser Game 1 vs. loser Game 4, 1:30 p.m.

Game 7 — Winner Game 3 vs. winner Game 4, 4 p.m.

Game 8 — Winner Game 5 vs. winner Game 6, 6:30 p.m.