Carrie Gilmore is undeniably a defense-first coach.
Gilmore, who presides over the Newman (Georgia) High School softball program, understands that offense may sell tickets but defense wins championships. In Gilmore’s 13 seasons at Newnan, the team has been to the Elite 8 four times and has made the state playoffs 12 times, along with several appearances in the Sweet 16.
A former second baseman and outfielder at Mercer University, Gilmore has a passion for teaching defense to today’s youth.
“My favorite aspect of the game is working with the infield on defense. I usually like defense better than offense in most sports. Offense seems to get all the glory, but I think there is a lot of hard work that goes behind playing defense,” Gilmore said. “It was always the most fun part of (playing) the game for me so I enjoy working with my players in that area.”
Gilmore relates her experience as a Division I second baseman as she tries to instill the fundamentals in Newman’s infield defense.
“I try to remember drills I liked and incorporate those into my practices,” Gilmore said. “I also try to remember things that were difficult so I am more understanding of my players' needs.”
Gilmore has her infielders start practice with partner work. Each player rolls a ball straight to a partner, followed by some to each side and finishing with work on short hops.
“This is very basic but works on fundamentals and gives them a good warm-up before we get deeper into infield work,” Gilmore said.
One such drill that Gilmore uses to make practice fun for her infielders is called “21 outs.”
In the drill, coaches hit balls to players just as if coaches were batters in a game. Players field the ball and play it live.
After three outs, the bases are cleared and they start a new “inning.” Gilmore notes that sometimes they use extra players as base runners but usually they play without real base runners.
There’s typically an emphasis to perform under pressure, as the players have to make the throw to first base in under three seconds for it to count as an out. There are also consequences for allowing over a certain number or runs or making a certain number of errors.
“They usually like this because it's not just repeated ground or fly balls,” Gilmore said. “They know how many more outs they have to make to be finished.”
Another way Gilmore spices up practice is by having competitions during live batting practice.
For example, if the infielders make five perfect plays in a row, they get a point. If they make any mistake, the coaches get a point. Offensively, the team gets points for base hits and sometimes double points for hits to the opposite field or negative points for routine fly balls.
“The drills are great but they need live, off-the-bat experience to prepare them for situations in games,” Gilmore said. “Players on defense usually play awesome defense and are really into the game because they don't want the other team to score.”
Overall, Gilmore advocates that the effort required to play strong defense teaches girls plenty about what it takes to make it in life.
“They have to have discipline on the field to keep working to perfect their skills even if the practice gets boring or repetitive,” Gilmore said. “They learn that putting forth hard work makes them better and stronger for when it matters.”