One year ago, Amos Willingham was at the end of his two-year stint in junior college and preparing to play summer baseball in Florence, S.C. Two years ago, he was a summer employee of the Chattooga County public-works department.
“Really just rode around the truck all day like a good government employee,” Willingham said. “Just a lot of the road projects.”
On Wednesday, Willingham will take on project on behalf of a different public institution — the 6-foot-4 right-hander will start for Georgia Tech in its opening pool-play game at the ACC tournament in Durham, N.C.
“For it to fall to me to kind of be the first guy out this week, it’s kind of special,” Willingham said.
With an unexpectedly strong regular season in the books, the Yellow Jackets will initiate pursuit of their 10th ACC tournament championship in a pool-play game against Notre Dame at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park. It would tie Clemson for most ACC tournament titles in conference history.
Willingham and his teammates have more at stake than the conference championship. Ranked as high as sixth nationally after being picked to finish fifth in the ACC Coastal Division in the preseason, Tech can make a play for a top-eight national seed in the NCAA tournament, which would enable the Jackets to be at home for both the regional and, if they advance, the super-regional round in their bid to reach the College World Series for the first time since 2006.
“From Day 1, we’ve set out our goals to win the state title, ACC title and go to Omaha and win that, too,” said designated hitter Michael Guldberg, named third-team All-ACC on Monday. “We’re feeling really good about achieving our goals so far and want to keep it going.”
After playing Notre Dame on Wednesday, Tech will complete pool play Friday against Duke. The No. 7 seed Blue Devils defeated the No. 11 seed Irish on Monday, meaning that Notre Dame is already eliminated. (In the event all three teams finish 1-1 in the pool, the highest seed advances. At this point, the best that Notre Dame can do is 1-1.)
The result also renders Wednesday’s Tech-Notre Dame game meaningless to the outcome of the pool. As long as the Jackets beat Duke on Friday, they’ll advance.
To that end, coach Danny Hall will likely turn to All-ACC starter Connor Thomas for the Friday game. (Ideally for the Jackets, Notre Dame would have won on Tuesday and then lost to Tech on Wednesday to enable the Jackets to clinch the pool.)
Regardless of the events in Durham, Hall said that he’s confident that the Jackets will at least be one of the 16 teams that earn a regional at home. But the more wins Tech can accumulate in Durham, the better.
“I think that definitely adds value (to the NCAA tournament résumé),” said Hall, named ACC coach of the year for the fourth time Monday. “So the better we can play in this tournament, maybe that just pads your résumé to where the people that make those decisions feel like we’re deserving of a top-eight national seed.”
Tech is safe as a regional host, bracketologist Boyd Nation told the AJC. He called a top-eight seed “a long shot, although not impossible.”
In a week where Tech will need as many effective arms as possible, Hall hopes that Xzavion Curry might be able to return. Tech’s Friday-night starter for the past three seasons has not pitched since April 26 because of shoulder inflammation. However, Curry threw a bullpen session Monday on campus before the team left for Durham, and Hall said that his progress this week will determine if he can pitch in Durham, likely on the weekend if at all.
“As I’ve said from the get-go, the No. 1 thing is to make sure that he’s healthy and then the second thing is, if we can have him play for the regionals, that’s the ultimate goal,” Hall said.
But first, Notre Dame, which lost two of three to the Jackets in March. In his three starts since taking over for Curry in the Friday-night role, Willingham went five innings in each and gave up four earned runs, then two and then seven.
Coming to Tech from junior college, Willingham didn’t envision himself starting the Jackets’ ACC tournament opener at the beginning of the season. But injuries to Curry and Brant Hurter (the latter for the season) have elevated him into the role.
“I’m just going to go out and pitch it like it’s any other game,” Willingham said. “I know it has more meaning, and every game from here on out is going to have more meaning than a regular-season game, but you can’t really think of it like that.”
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