There was no more magic left for the No. 7 Georgia softball team Saturday afternoon.
Determined to garner respect for their team and their conference, the No. 17 Baylor Bears came from behind to beat Georgia 6-3 to sweep the NCAA super regional and earn their third visit to the Women’s College World Series.
Baylor — the NCAA tournament’s 13th seed — defeated fourth-seeded Georgia 9-1 in six innings on Friday to set up Saturday’s showdown. In 2011, the Bears defeated Georgia 2-1 in the Super Regional in Athens to advance to their second WCWS.
“I want to say that it’s time for people to get off the (Southeastern Conference) kick because there are other conferences out there,” Baylor coach Glenn Moore said. “We have respect for the SEC and we know they’re good and I’ve coached in it. But there are other conferences out there and I’m very proud of the Big 12 and we just beat the tournament champions in the SEC and it’s time to give the Big 12 a little bit of respect. We earned it today.”
Thanks to Alex Hugo’s record-setting 25th home run of the season, the Bulldogs (49-15) jumped out to the lead in the first inning, but each time Georgia went ahead, Baylor (47-14) responded. When the Bears finally assumed the advantage in the fifth inning, the Bulldogs were unable to answer the bell.
“It’s heartbreaking,” said Georgia shortstop Paige Wilson. “We call each other sisters. It stinks that you have to end it short because we all wanted to go to the World Series and prove everyone wrong. It’s not fun. We love each other and it hurts, but we’ll come back next year.”
The game was tied 1-1 heading to the fourth inning, when the Bulldogs (Saturday’s “visiting” team) retook the lead on a one-out infield single by Sam LaZear that scored Katie Brown. Baylor made it 2-2 in its half of the fourth, and when Georgia scored again in the fifth to go up 3-2, the Bears tallied twice to take their first lead at 4-3 and then picked up two insurance runs in the sixth inning, thanks in part to three Bulldogs errors.
“Defense wins championships and we can play stronger defense and we have throughout the season,” Georgia coach Lu Harris-Champer, whose club committed six errors over the weekend, said.
Although Baylor pitcher Whitney Canion wasn’t as sharp Saturday as she was on Friday when she allowed but two hits and struck out six batters on just 77 pitches, the sixth-year senior kept escaping from certain doom as the Bulldogs stranded 12 runners, including three in the third inning and two in the fourth, fifth and seventh innings.
“It feels amazing,” Canion (31-10), who has appeared in three Super Regionals, said. “This will be the perfect ending to my career. I can’t explain how happy I am for this team (and) the people who haven’t been able to experience this. I know I’ll never forget 2011, but to finish on this is one heck of a note.”
The centerpiece of Baylor’s pitching strategy was to walk the dangerous Hugo, who was hitting in the two spot, and take its chances with the batters behind her. The plan worked well as the Bulldogs weren’t able to generate as much offense with Hugo on base. Batting fourth, Tina Iosefa had two hits, but that was about the extent of Georgia’s follow-up.
“There are really good hitters behind me and I have all the faith in the world in them,” Hugo, who set the school record for home runs in a season, said. “It’s just some days you have it and some days you don’t.”
After getting rocked for eight runs and seven hits on Friday, Georgia pitcher Chelsea Wilkinson (33-10) had better luck on Saturday, allowing but five earned runs and eight hits while striking out three and stranding seven Baylor runners on base.
“… Chelsea did a fine job on the mound, and I loved our grit and our fight,” Harris-Champer said. “The best thing about this team is how much they trust each other, believe in each other and care and fight for each other.”
Besides Hugo and Iosefa, the Bulldogs got two hits from Kaylee Puailoa and one each from Bethany Beggs, Geri Ann Glasco and LaZear.
Linsey Hays recorded two hits and two RBIs for Baylor, with the big blow coming in the fifth inning when she sent a Wilkinson pitch over the right-field wall to give the Bears their first lead of the day. Ari Hawkins also had two hits, and Jordan Strickland added a hit and an RBI.
Although understandably disappointed in the way the season ended, the Bulldogs are losing but one senior – the little-used Tiesha Reed – and will return the rest of the roster, including rising junior Wilkinson, Glasco, LaZear, Beggs, Puailoa, Iosefa and Browne.
“I’m thrilled about where the program is,” Harris-Champer said. “These student-athletes have represented our team and Georgia with class and heart and passion. The chemistry they’ve developed this season will carry over into the future.”