ATHENS — In case you haven’t noticed, things are going pretty well for Georgia athletics these days.
Just this week, I’ve spent some time with the Bulldogs’ diamond sports. Tuesday, I was at the Ben Epps Airport watching Georgia’s softball team get a sendoff to Oklahoma City and the Women’s College World Series. On Monday, I had lunch with baseball coach Scott Stricklin and a couple of his players in the Dugout Club at Foley Field. The Bulldogs received a No. 8 seed and are preparing to host the Athens Regional in the NCAA Tournament.
You’ll note that’s a far cry from where those programs were a year ago. The baseball team had missed “The Show” for the last six seasons. Lu Harris-Champer’s softball team almost never misses the tournament — they’ve qualified for 17 straight — but last year it was the victim of a rare first-round bounce when Florida State upset the Lady Dogs in the Athens Regional.
Fast forward to the 2017-18 academic year, and including the football team’s run to the National Championship Game last fall, the indoor national championship in women’s track earlier this year and a few other highlights, it has been a pretty good year. Add it all up, and UGA is currently 15th in the Learfield Director’s Cup standings, second among SEC teams. Georgia’s women’s teams are currently first in the SEC in the all-sports standings.
Keep in mind, that’s while getting very little out of the “country club sports” and swimming, which is uncharacteristic. Georgia is usually a force when it comes to golf and tennis, but both men’s teams had off years.
Chris Haack’s men’s golfers sagged to an 11th-place finish and failed to advance out of the NCAA Regional in Bryan, Texas. Manuel Diaz’s men’s tennis team was knocked out in the first round of the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 15 years and only the fifth time ever when it lost to Minnesota in Norman, Okla. The Bulldogs finished 5-7 in the SEC and 13-11 overall.
What’s more, Diaz’s team continues to battle issues off the court. Sophomore Nathan Ponwith, who played No. 1 singles as a freshman, was dismissed from the team after being arrested for public intoxication and possession of a controlled substance in coastal Alabama last week. That came a year after associate head coach Bo Hodge were arrested on theft and prescription drug charges. Hodge accepted a plea deal and resigned his position.
Just to make sure, I asked AD Greg McGarity at the athletic board’s spring meeting last Friday if all this was a cause of concern for this powerhouse program.
“No, it’s not,” said McGarity, himself a UGA tennis letterman and former head coach of women’s tennis. “Just look at Manny’s record at UGA over three decades. Anybody who’s in coaching that amount of time is going to experience challenges. No one’s more disappointed than Manny Diaz. I’m very confident he is making every effort possible to return Georgia tennis to prominence.”
Georgia also had somewhat down years in men’s and women’s swimming, which finished 10th and 11th, respectively. Traditionally, both of Jack Bauerle’s programs are in the national championship hunt. And, of course, men’s basketball missed the NCAA Tournament again, resulting in the only coaching change for the academic year.
But mostly things are on the upswing. And Georgia could move up significantly before its over.
The Bulldogs are expected to contend for national championships in both men’s and women’s outdoor track. And now baseball and softball are firmly in the hunt as well. The No. 7-ranked Lady Dogs (48-11) play No. 2 Florida on Thursday at 7 p.m. ET (ESPN2) in Oklahoma City. Georgia won two of three from the Gators in Athens earlier this season. It’s Georgia’s fourth trip to the WCWS.
The eighth-seeded baseball team will be favored to win its bracket when Campbell, Troy and Duke visit this weekend. The Bulldogs open against Campbell on Friday night at 7 p.m. in the double-elimination tournament. As a national seed, UGA also will host the Super Regionals should the Bulldogs advance.
If Georgia can get hot in any of the aforementioned competitions, the school is poised for a possible top-10 finish in the Learfield Director’s Cup standings. That hasn’t happened in a while. The last time was in 2013 when the Bulldogs finished 10th. Georgia’s been in the top 10 eight times since they started keeping track in 1993. The best finish ever was No. 2 in 1998-99, when the Bulldogs recorded three national championships.
So these are indeed heady times for UGA atheltics. To echo those words that have been repeated many times, “it’s good to be a Dawg,” especially lately.