ATHENS — Georgia was sweating out a national seed on Monday. Well, everybody but coach Scott Stricklin.
The Bulldogs’ fifth-year skipper insisted he never really doubted it, even when the commentators on ESPN’s selection show were reading off Nos. 6 and 7 and the team still sat in riveted attention in the team meeting room at Foley Field.
Finally, they read off Georgia as No. 8, which sent the room — and even the normally stoic Stricklin — into unbridled celebration.
“Sometimes you get tipped off; we did not,” said Stricklin, who will lead his team into the NCAA’s postseason show for the first time in five seasons. “We had no clue. When it got to 8 it had to be us or not, and it was an explosion in our locker room. It was a genuine reaction.”
Georgia entered the proceedings with a national RPI of 9, so it was a bit of an upset on the college baseball scene. Texas Tech ended up as the No. 9 seed, and thus the Lubbock Regional stands across from the Athens Regional in the big bracket. With the required luck that comes with the game of baseball, those two will settle the score at the Super Regional.
Stricklin said he would’ve been disappointed had the Bulldogs not received a national seed, but he needn’t be. By any measure, this has been a remarkable season, national seed or not.
To appreciate that, one need only go back three months. Heading into the season, there was no talk of national seeds or even NCAA bids. The most dominant conversation was about Stricklin’s job status. With no NCAA Tournaments — not even a winning season — to show for his previous four seasons as coach, it was more than a whisper that this might be his last season with the Bulldogs. It almost certainly would be without a postseason bid.
But both Stricklin and his boss, athletic director Greg McGarity, insisted that the program was being built slowly and deliberately through recruiting. But they needed to be validated in the won-loss record.
At 37-19, finally it was.
“Our first goal was to get into the postseason,” Stricklin said while eating lunch in UGA’s Dugout Club on Monday. “That’s what we told our guys: ‘We need to get our seniors to the postseason.’ We’ve got a young club but I thought it was important for [the seniors] to get that experience. … Play for our five [seniors] has kind of been the goal the whole time.”
There were signs this could be a good team, with a nice blend of experienced leadership and young talent. But there were no guarantees. There wasn’t an obvious go-to pitcher, and both the bats and defense had been wildly inconsistent to date.
Then there was the matter of the schedule and the league. The SEC is ridiculously powerful as a baseball conference, as the evidence of the league earning four national seeds bears out. But then Georgia annually plays Georgia Tech and Clemson, not to mention formidable in-state foes such as Georgia Southern and Georgia State. In the end, the Bulldogs’ schedule was judged as fourth strongest in the country.
“If I would’ve told you on Feb. 16 we were going to be a national seed, I don’t know how many eyes wouldn’t have rolled, but I wasn’t going to say that,” Stricklin said. “Ultimately that’s what our goal was, but our first initial goal was to get this program into the postseason.”
Nevertheless, there was an internal belief that the players and coaches can only vaguely explain. They knew how close they’d been the previous year, the fluky and untimely injuries that had befallen them, and all the hard work they’d put in since this time a year ago.
“Everybody else may be shocked and surprised, but it’s not a surprise to us,” said senior Keegan McGovern, the undesignated captain of this crew. “We knew what we’d done in offseason and in practices and lifting weights and everything else we’d done. We always knew this was what we’d do.”
Stricklin refers to McGovern as the “heart and soul of team.” The senior had the opportunity to start a pro baseball career, and nobody would’ve blamed him having not logged a winning season in his previous three at Georgia.
But he grew up watching Georgia make postseason runs and he wanted to experience that himself before moving on to the cold, cruel world of pro ball.
Seeing that go from goal to reality had McGovern walking on air Monday.
“It just shows how much work we’ve put in and believing in each other,” said McGovern, who leads the Bulldogs in batting average (.325), home runs (15) and slugging percentage (.630). “With everything we’ve done throughout the year, people are starting to see we’re a team that can host regionals and Super Regionals.”
It took more than wishful thinking. The Bulldogs have recorded their lowest team ERA in 50 years. McGovern is hitting 34 points higher and has clubbed 13 more home runs than he did a year ago. Georgia found one of the SEC’s most effective closers in their sophomore third baseman, Aaron Schunk, who is 8 of 10 in save opportunities.
Stricklin said he got an inkling this kind of year was in store when the Bulldogs took two of three from Texas A&M, a top-10 team, in late March. He started thinking about the possibility of national seed when Georgia swept Missouri on the road the first weekend of May. He figured his team to be “a lock” when it took two of three from No. 4 Arkansas in the final regular-season series, which ended with a win on a throw-out at home plate.
Georgia was bounced in two games in the SEC Tournament, including a “heartbreaker” to eventual champion Ole Miss last Thursday. But even that didn’t dim the national view of the Bulldogs, even the number-crunchers who meticulously build these brackets.
“My wife asked me this morning what I thought and I said, ‘It’s a coin flip,'” Stricklin said. “It could’ve gone either way, but I’m very grateful it went our way.”
As well he should be. Never mind being a national seed, if the Bulldogs had fallen short of the NCAA Tournament, it’s fairly certain Stricklin would be looking for work elsewhere. He had but one season remaining on the original contract he signed to come here from Kent State in 2013.
Instead, a contract extension almost certainly is forthcoming, regardless of what happens in the NCAA Tournament. McGarity, who has stood by Stricklin to this point, said he won’t consider that until the entire season is finished.
Until the College World Series at least, Georgia knows the rest of its games will be played at Foley Field. That’s no small thing, considering the Bulldogs are 23-6 at home this season.
Accordingly, Stricklin is as buoyant and confident as his players when it comes to seeing that this run continues. He said the plan is “feeding off the energy of the home crowd.”
“I don’t think there’s any question when you look at people’s home records, it makes a difference,” said Stricklin, who as the coach at Kent State never got to host a regional. “Our home record speaks for itself. We play really well here, our crowds have been really good all year long and I know it will be electric on Friday night.”
It certainly was electric for Monday afternoon.