In win over UNC, Georgia Tech takes Coastal for second consecutive season

Georgia Tech shortstop Luke Waddell (No. 7) and second baseman Austin Wilhite share a hug after the final out of the Yellow Jackets' 10-6 win over North Carolina on May 22, 2021 at Russ Chandler Stadium. (Danny Karnik/Georgia Tech Athletics)
Georgia Tech shortstop Luke Waddell (No. 7) and second baseman Austin Wilhite share a hug after the final out of the Yellow Jackets' 10-6 win over North Carolina on May 22, 2021 at Russ Chandler Stadium. (Danny Karnik/Georgia Tech Athletics)

When the drama at last subsided at Russ Chandler Stadium on Saturday afternoon, Austin Wilhite and Luke Waddell found each other behind second base. It was a fitting place to come together, as the two have worked that section of the infield in well-timed coordination for the past three seasons as the Yellow Jackets’ double-play combination.

The two young men shared a hug. Wilhite, the second baseman, gave Waddell, the Jackets’ shortstop, two pats on the back.

Around them, teammates were exulting in their 10-6 win over North Carolina, a win on the final day of the regular season that secured Tech’s second consecutive ACC Coastal Division title (not counting the shortened 2020 season).

There perhaps were a few brows figuratively or literally wiped on this warm and clear afternoon, as Tech went into the top of the ninth ahead 10-3 before the Tar Heels added three and had the bases loaded before Dalton Smith closed it with a three-pitch strikeout of Max Riemer.

For Wilhite and Waddell, it was their final game together at Russ Chandler.

“I love Luke like a brother,” Wilhite said. “I’d do anything for him, be there for him in any situation. It’s been great being out there being able to play with him. We just kind of enjoyed that last moment together on this field. Not for the end of the season, but a lot of time together on this field. So we were just soaking it in.”

On Senior Day, both Wilhite and Waddell – known collectively as the “Killer Dubs” – were central to the win for Tech (28-21, 21-15 ACC). It was critical, as the Jackets needed either to win or have red-hot Miami lose to secure the Coastal title.

“As a team, we came out (Saturday), that was a must-win game,” Wilhite said.

In the bottom of the second inning, Wilhite worked a hit-and-run with an opposite-field single to score Stephen Reid to take a 2-1 lead over North Carolina (26-24, 18-18). Up next, Waddell, the leadoff hitter, put down a bunt for a single to bring in Jake DeLeo for a 3-1 advantage.

In the third, Waddell produced another run, getting hit by a pitch with the bases loaded, part of a six-run inning in which the Tar Heels walked three Tech batters, hit two of them in a row and used three of the seven pitchers sent to the mound by UNC coach Scott Forbes. Freshman Kevin Parada’s two-out bases-loaded double lifted the score to 9-1, which began to render moot Miami’s 3-2 win over Louisville, a game that ended during the bottom of the fourth at Russ Chandler.

Wilhite also made perhaps the defensive play of the game in the top of the fourth. With two out, on a hard-hit grounder up the middle by Angel Zarate, Wilhite ranged far to his right and dove to come up with the ball, throwing to Waddell for the fielder’s choice at second.

Their contributions helped provide breathing room for starting pitcher and freshman Marquis Grissom Jr., who gave up two earned runs over five innings for his first career win and second solid start in a row.

“It’s great to have those two behind me,” Grissom said of Waddell and Wilhite. “They’ve always been there for me since Day 1. Even since my (preseason back) injury, they’ve encouraged me, stayed positive: ‘You’re going to come back and be our guy.’ For me, just to be there for them, that’s exciting. I love those guys. They’re two of the greatest teammates I’ve ever had.”

In their final two games at home, in which Tech needed both games to win the Coastal after losing the series opener, the two were a combined 8-for-16 with five RBIs and three runs and made sparking plays in the field.

“(The defensive plays) are things that sometimes just get overlooked, but not overlooked by me or our staff or our players,” coach Danny Hall said. “They’re just great middle infielders and make a lot of plays for our team and for our pitchers. Both of them, just really, really good guys, good workers but great competitors.”

Both under 6-foot, neither arrived at Tech with the highest external expectations. Wilhite, from Buford High, was rated the No. 48 second baseman in the country in the 2016 class (Perfect Game), making him a veritable blue chipper compared with Waddell, the No. 141 shortstop in the 2017 class, out of Loveland, Ohio.

But both started in Hall’s infield from the time they were freshmen and have produced at the plate, Waddell usually at the top and Wilhite near the bottom. Wilhite is, in fact, a rare five-year starter, because he took advantage of the extra season of eligibility granted by the NCAA because of COVID-19.

By winning the Coastal, the Jackets earned the No. 2 seed (Atlantic champion Notre Dame is No. 1) and drew what appears to be a favorable three-team pool, sharing it with No. 7-seed Louisville and No. 11-seed Clemson. The Cardinals have been swept in three of their final four series while the Tigers have lost their past three series, two by sweep, one to the Jackets. There are two advantages of being a division winner: The teams get to pick their off day during pool play and will be the pool winner and advance to the semifinals in the event all three teams finish 1-1 by virtue of being the highest seed.

Tech moves on to the ACC Tournament in Charlotte, N.C., riding a bit of a wave. The Jackets began the season 14-7, then lost nine of their next 13 to drop to 18-16. The Jackets have since won 10 of their past 15, including two wins over Georgia and a sweep of Clemson.

“I think the downs are what actually have made us stronger as a team, the way we fight back,” Wilhite said. “If we lose a game, to come out stronger the next game, to be able to come back after (Thursday) night and come out and win these next two games just shows the determination and grit that our team has. It’s a good starting point to carry us over here into this postseason play we’re about to go to.”