ATHENS — It was a giddy bunch of Bulldogs that gathered in the terminal at Athens-Ben Epps Airport on Tuesday. That shouldn’t be mistaken for a team that believes it has done all it needs to do.
Georgia’s softball team took off on a mission when it left hallowed home ground in a chartered jet bound for Oklahoma City and the Women’s College World Series. They’re in it to win it.
“This is a goal we actually knew we could achieve,” said Alyssa DiCarlo, the Bulldogs’ star shortstop. “It wasn’t something where we were, like, ‘Ooh, I wish we could go.’ It was something we were actively working toward and always talking about. So, no, we’re not surprised by this.”
Maybe not, but the No. 7-ranked Bulldogs (48-11) surprised a lot of other people, especially after losing their ace pitcher 37 games into the season. Brittany Gray, a senior right-hander from Greenwood, Ind., was being talked about as the best pitcher in college softball when she carried a 16-1 record and 0.48 earned-run average — second-best in the nation — into April. But after recording a complete-game win against Georgia Tech on April 4, a right biceps injury sidelined her for the rest of the season.
A lot of softball folks wrote off Georgia after that. Fortunately for the Bulldogs, none of those folks wore red-and-black uniforms.
The Bulldogs went from a one-pitcher show to two as right-hander Mary Wilson Avant and left-hander Kylie Bass combined to go 27-6 with a 1.70 ERA over the course of the season. Three weeks after Gray went down, Avant, a sophomore from Macon, was named SEC pitcher of the week. She allowed one run in eight innings in the clinching 2-1 victory over Tennessee in the Super Regional.
“We had a talk about it and decided that we were going to play for Brittany and that this wasn’t going to be the end of our season,” DiCarlo said. “We miss Brittany a lot, but she’s just one person on the team and we knew we could still go out there and go to the World Series and win a national championship without her.”
Here are some storylines to be aware of as Georgia prepares to face No. 2 Florida in the first round of the WCWS in Oklahoma:
No fear of Gators
Florida is known as a perennial powerhouse in softball, but Georgia took two of three from the Gators earlier this season, including an 11-1 run-rule rout in five innings on March 17. The Bulldogs won two of three in Gainesville in 2016.
“We don’t spend a lot of time focusing on our opponent,” UGA coach Lu Harris-Champer said. “We just focus on what we’re doing and do the best to control what we do. But anytime you play a team that you’re familiar with, there’s a lot of preparation that has already taken place.”
Flair for dramatic
Georgia has pulled out numerous close, hard-fought wins, none more dramatic than the extra-inning affair against Tennessee that sent the Bulldogs to Oklahoma City. With nobody on and two out, senior Cortni Emmanuel hit a home run through the pines in right field at Jack Turner Stadium.
“That was pretty cool,” said Emanuel, who has hit only 3 homers her entire career. “I’ve never hit a game-winning home run before. I was just locked-in in that sitaution. To see my teammates yelling and cheering for me afterwards, I knew it was all for them and we were really going to Oklahoma City. That was pretty exciting.”
No strangers to Oklahoma City
This is Georgia’s fourth trip to the Women’s College World Series, the last time coming just two years ago. The Bulldogs are 7-6 all time in the championship rounds, reaching the semifinals in 2009 and 2010.
“Been there, done that, ready to compete for a championship,” Harris-Champer said. “When you’ve been there a couple of times, it allows you to feel a little more at-ease and just get out there and play softball.”
Big turnaround from last season
The Bulldogs were uncharacteristically bounced at home in the first round of the 2017 NCAA Tournament. It represented the end of an extremely disappointing season.
“Knowing that feeling that we had, everybody was ready to work coming into this season,” Emanuel said. “Everybody has bought into the culture we’ve created on this team. I think love and togetherness is a big thing on our team, and that has carried us this far.”
Long ball & leadership
Led by DiCarlo, the Bulldogs definitely know how to hit the ball out of the park. DiCarlo has clubbed a team-leading 20 home runs this season, fifth on Georgia’s all-time list for a single season. She had three in the second game of the Athens Regional, and enters the WCWS with 66 RBI this season and 193 in her career. Sophomore second baseman Justice Milz has hit 14 and the Bulldogs’ starting infield has 52.
But it’s leadership that has distinguished this team, despite having just two seniors and a junior in the lineup, according to Harris-Champer.
“I knew we had the potential [to reach Oklahoma City],” she said. “As the internal leadership grew, it just got stronger and stronger and stronger, as did our mindset. … That’s the name of the game; it’s the mindset and the determination and the ability to stay locked into the process in the present moment.”
Georgia definitely enters as an underdog. Oregon is ranked No. 1 in the country, No. 2 Florida has won two national championships and No. 4 Oklahoma is going for a “three-peat” and its fourth title in six years.
Nevertheless, the Bulldogs are extremely confident.
“We have all the belief in the world,” Emanuel said. “It’s going to take us competing, winning the big moments, handling adversity and staying together. That’s what we’ve done all year.”
Added DiCarlo: “We have what it takes. When we’re confident and play like the little kids that fell in love with the game, we’re unstoppable.”