ATHENS – Georgia’s softball team has lost 13 of its past 15 games, including seven in a row to end the season. That left the Bulldogs at 29-21 overall and 10 games below .500 in SEC play (7-17). So why are they hosting an NCAA softball regional?
That’s a fair question.
It’s a multi-part answer: One, UGA competes in the SEC, the strongest conference in the country when it comes to fast-pitch softball, and not by a little bit; two, Duke, the No. 1 seed in the Athens Regional, currently does not allow fans in the stands for games because of the pandemic; and, three, the Bulldogs know how to throw a great regional.
Simply put, Georgia does an exceptional job of hosting.
All that said, Georgia’s legendary coach Lu Harris-Champer was as astonished as anybody when the Bulldogs’ name appeared on the top line during the NCAA’s selection show earlier this week.
“I was definitely surprised,” said Harris-Champer, Georgia’s coach for all 21 years of the program’s existence. “I knew we were going to be one of the 20 (sites under consideration). But, yeah, we were thrilled when we saw it. At first I didn’t see our name at the top and the girls did. I was, like, ‘OK, we’re at home. Awesome!’ So, it’s great to be at home.”
And so, the Bulldogs have a better chance of advancing in the NCAA Tournament than your average .580 ballclub.
But Duke is the No. 1 seed for a reason. The Blue Devils are 42-10 and champions of the ACC with a 26-10 record. In only its fourth year as a program, Duke won its first ACC championship as the third-seeded team in the conference tournament last week. It shut out top-seeded Clemson 1-0 on Saturday afternoon after ousting No. 6 Louisville, 4-3, in the quarterfinals and rallying for a 4-3 victory over No. 2 Florida State in the semifinals.
So the Blue Devils are favored to advance from the regional. The winners gets the champion of the NCAA’s Gainesville Regional, expected to be No. 2 Florida.
“Glad that we’re in a place that we can drive to in Athens,” Duke coach Marissa Young said on the ACC Network. “We didn’t have fans at Duke, so being able to be on the road someplace where our family and friends can be there to support our team is something we’re excited about.”
Duke has limited attendance this season to two guests for each player participating. However, the NCAA insists that attendance policies weren’t part of the consideration during the selection process.
That actually was conducted in April as the NCAA wanted to predetermine sites so that it could insure that health-and-safety protocols could be met and that third-party testing could be arranged. At the time, Georgia was still a top-20 team.
Obviously, the Bulldogs have struggled lately, especially scoring runs. Normally a long-ball team, Georgia averaged just 2.0 runs a game during the current losing streak.
They’ll have to get both offense and more consistent pitching addressed if they hope to advance past Western Kentucky (31-13), champions of Conference USA. Georgia will take on the Hilltoppers at 2:30 p.m. Friday (ESPN 3). Duke draws UNC-Greensboro (34-15).
“I think we’re ready to get after it,” senior pitcher Mary Wilson Avant said. “We’ve been working really hard at practice and we’re definitely getting better with every practice.”
History is definitely on Georgia’s side. The Bulldogs are making their 19th consecutive NCAA tournament appearance under Harris-Champer, who has led to two SEC championships, one SEC tournament championship, 10 super regionals, and four trips to the College World Series.
Georgia has a habit of getting hot at the end of seasons. But the Bulldogs offer no apologies for hosting.
“I don’t pretend to know how to do the job of the committee,” Harris-Champer said. “Where we’re going is just where we’re going. … For me, it’s ‘let’s go, let’s play.’”
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Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com