CLEMSON – Kyle Jamieson first realized Valerie Cagle had star potential when he was the head coach at Furman and happened to see Cagle pitching at a showcase travel tournament.
“There was this strong, athletic kid who was throwing hard and hitting home runs from the left side,” Jamieson recalls now. “The ball was coming in fast, coming in heavy and she was one of those pitchers where you’re walking by and you stop to watch.”
There was just one problem.
Jamieson soon found out Cagle was committed to Delaware and he had no shot to land the two-way player.
“When I was at Furman I always wanted her to come, but that wasn’t the type of school she was looking for. She was committed to Delaware,” Jamieson said. “Every time I’d see her I was like, ‘Man, she’s so good’ but she was committed to Delaware.”
Jamieson continued to do his due diligence in regards to Cagle, watching her Hanover Hornets travel ball team regularly. There were other players on the team Furman was recruiting, and he also wanted to be ready to throw his hat into the ring in the off-chance Cagle did decide to open up her recruitment at some point.
In December of 2017, Jamieson went from being the head coach at Furman to an assistant for John Rittman’s brand new program at Clemson. The following summer, he had an opportunity to land what turned out to be the perfect program starter in Cagle.
Fast forward three years and Cagle is an absolute star for the Tigers. In her redshirt freshman season, the Virginia native has been named the ACC Player of the Year and is a finalist for the National Player of the Year. She led Clemson to the ACC regular-season title and a No. 2 seed in the Tuscaloosa Regional in the NCAA Tournament. The Tigers begin play Friday afternoon against No. 3 seed Troy.
Cagle had quite the journey from being homeschooled and committed elsewhere to starring for the Tigers, but she wouldn’t change anything about the way it played out.
“I’ve never regretted for a second my decision to come here,” Cagle told ClemsonSports.com. “I can’t imagine it being any other way. This is the way it is and I absolutely love it.”
As dominant as Valerie Cagle is now, her softball career actually got off to a bit of a slow start.
Cagle first started playing softball at the age of 6, and while she pitched some, it wasn’t her strong suit.
“Pitching I was not good at all until I was about 12,” she said. “I couldn’t make it through an inning or throw strikes. Hitting’s always been more of my thing than pitching was.”
Cagle’s competitive spirit didn’t allow her to struggle on the mound for too long.
Cagle is described by her teammates and coaches as a fierce competitor who hates losing more than she enjoys winning.
As Jamieson says, “that’s who you want on the mound.”
“I remember being younger playing kickball with my brother, getting mad if I didn’t win,” Cagle said of her competitiveness. “Stuff like that. So I don’t remember a time when I didn’t have it.”
Looking back on it now, Cagle is thankful that pitching didn’t come as natural to her.
She worked hard to get better, but it was never a situation where she grew tired of the practice time it takes to become elite.
“The biggest thing was just keep practicing. A lot of pitchers when they’re young and they’re good, they get burnt out,” Cagle said. “So I’m honestly very glad that I wasn’t great when I was younger, just because I didn’t go through 10U, 12U getting burnt out because I was throwing so many innings because I was the only pitcher who could throw strikes.”
Cagle eventually worked her way into being a Division I level player, committing to Delaware in December of 2016.
But her recruitment wasn’t over yet.
‘One month whirlwind’
Jamieson still vividly remembers when he first found out Valerie Cagle was opening up her recruitment.
He was attending his first tournament recruiting as an assistant coach at Clemson in the summer of 2018, and Cagle’s Hanover Hornets team was there.
“We were at Chattanooga, and I’m friends with her coach. I went up to their field to watch. We were actually going to watch a couple of other kids on the Hanover Hornets. [The coach] said, ‘Hey, you’re never going to believe this. Cagle’s opened up her recruiting. There’s been a coaching change [at Delaware],’” Jamieson recalled.
“That got me pretty excited.”
Jamieson called fellow Clemson assistant Courtney Breault, who was at the tournament but on a different field, and told her to come over.
“She had quite a hike to get up there. As soon as she got up there I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, you just missed her hit a home run about 300 feet,’” Jamieson said.
Jamieson called Cagle after the tournament, hoping to convince her to come to Clemson’s camp on Thursday of that week to work out in front of Rittman and Clemson’s entire staff.
It wasn’t the smoothest conversation, as Cagle recalls, but it worked.
“I’m a little awkward on the phone, and he may be a little bit too, so it was an interesting conversation,” she said laughing. “He was just trying to get me to come to camp. That was a big thing for me, first impressions, meeting other coaches, campus, etc.”
Cagle eventually agreed to attend the camp and put on a show that day, earning an offer from the Tigers.
Her travel ball team just so happened to be playing in Spartanburg that weekend, and Clemson’s staff watched her the entire time, envisioning what she might do for the Tigers playing about an hour south down I-85.
Within a month, Cagle committed to Clemson, becoming a building block for the program.
“It was kind of like this one month whirlwind, especially that first week where we saw her in Chattanooga, got her up to camp on a Thursday, and then we went to Spartanburg Friday, Saturday, Sunday,” Jamieson said. “That was all within seven days when our coaching staff got to really see her a lot.”
Softball is very much a team game, and there are plenty of reasons Clemson is having a historic season. But the Tigers would not be where they are today without Valerie Cagle.
On the mound, she’s Clemson’s ace, entering the NCAA Tournament with a 26-5 record, 1.05 ERA and 247 strikeouts in 197 2/3 innings pitched.
“When she’s on she’s almost unhittable,” Rittman said. “It helps us offensively, because we know we don’t have to go out and score 7-8 runs when Valerie’s in the circle. We can relax a little bit and try to get in our groove offensively.”
At the plate, Cagle leads Clemson with a .414 average. She also has a team-high 15 home runs and is tied for the team lead with 41 RBIs.
Cagle is the first player in ACC history to be named the Freshman of the Year and Player of the Year in the same season.
“Being able to get her and bring her in as clearly a program-changer… she’s tremendous,” ESPN analyst Amanda Scarborough said. “She keeps the ball down and throws hard, all the while being able to also mix speeds up in the zone with her rise. She’s not just going to rely on one speed. She has multiple speed and great spin to go along with it that she can mix up the hitters’ timing.”
While Cagle has the ability to mix speeds, oftentimes she simply throws it by hitters.
One year, when it was time for her travel ball team to get new jerseys, Cagle’s father made a suggestion. Cagle had never really cared what number she wore, but her dad thought perhaps she should pick a number and stick with it.
“He just said ‘What about picking a speed goal?’ He told me I should pick No. 70, and I was like ‘No, that’s too boring,” Cagle recalled.
Instead, she picked 72.
Cagle finally reached that number during this past offseason and has thrown as fast as 74 this year.
Cagle has added plenty of other goals along the way. She wanted to be the first person to homer at McWhorter Stadium when the Tigers played their first softball season in 2020, and she was. She’s also the first person to hit a ball over the scoreboard at McWhorter Stadium during a game.
“She makes these bold statements or goals. For example, she wants to wear 72 because she eventually wants to throw 72 miles an hour. She did that. When she committed to us and the field was being built, she was like, ‘I want to be the first one to hit a home run out of this stadium. She was the first one to hit a home run out of the stadium,’” Jamieson said. “I’m sure she said, ‘I’m going to hit one over the scoreboard in a game’ and a few weeks ago she hit one over the scoreboard. I love how she makes these statements, but she backs them up.”
Cagle’s goal for this season was to finish with 20 home runs and 20 wins. She’s reached the wins mark and has a chance to get to the homer goal during the NCAA Tournament.
She has a goal for her career as well.
“After I hit 72 miles an hour, I changed the meaning of 72,” Cagle said. “I’m trying to get 72 wins and 72 home runs in my career. So that’s kind of the next big thing.”
The next big thing at Clemson is Valerie Cagle, who is arguably the top athlete on campus at a university featuring one of the best football programs in the country.
“She’s the complete package,” Rittman said. “Super excited that she’s a Clemson Tiger.”