Although there’s no question No. 11 Georgia will go all-out at this weekend’s Southeastern Conference softball tournament, recent history suggests the quicker the Bulldogs exit the tournament, the better their chances of reaching the Women’s College World Series.
In the 2009 and 2010 tournaments, Georgia was sent packing early by Kentucky and Tennessee, respectively, but both of those Bulldogs teams subsequently bounced back to qualify for the WCWS.
Last year, Georgia stuck around much longer, advancing to the finals of the conference tournament (falling to Tennessee, 6-5, in eight innings), but the Bulldogs later came up short in their quest for a third consecutive World Series appearance.
And as the fourth-seeded Bulldogs (40-14, 17-11 in the SEC) face fifth seed Kentucky (29-27, 15-13) at 5 p.m. today in the single-elimination tournament’s first round in Tuscaloosa, Ala., they do so with a determination to have a long and busy weekend.
“I would love to go all the way and win that tournament,” said senior catcher Kristyn Sandberg, who as a freshman and sophomore played in the WCWS. “We play in one of the toughest conferences in the country, and to play people like Alabama, Florida and LSU day in and day out is a good test to see how tough your team is. If we could come out with (the championship) there, that would be a huge momentum push going into regionals and would give us a good idea on how far we can go.”
And even though an early departure would mean some much-needed rest before the upcoming regionals (of which Georgia will no doubt host), anything less than bringing an SEC championship back to Athens would be a letdown.
“I would definitely be disappointed with one-and-done,” said Sandberg, who leads Georgia with a .360 batting average, 17 home runs and 45 RBIs and was named first-team All-SEC on Wednesday. “Losing the championship last year in extra innings was a heartbreaker, and I would love to go out there and win one more time.
After losing stars like Megan Wiggins, Taylor Schlopy and Alisa Goler to graduation in 2011, Georgia has filled in nicely this spring with some impressive newcomers. Of the Bulldogs’ top five hitters, three — freshmen Paige Wilson and Gracie Goulder and junior transfer Tess Sisto — weren’t on the roster a year ago. With a season’s worth of SEC experience behind them, every player knows there’s something at stake this weekend.
“(The older players have) said that because this is single elimination, we’ve got to compete in every game and play hard every game,” said Wilson, who’s batting .327 with nine homers and 43 RBIs and on Wednesday was named to the All-SEC Freshman Team. “This tournament is really important. Obviously, we want to win it.
“We’re clicking. We’re working hard and we’re getting better each day. We never stop fighting and clawing and scratching and do what we do best — playing Georgia softball.”
The Bulldogs face a tough assignment in the first round. In mid-April, Kentucky took two of three from Georgia in Lexington, a series that included a no-hitter by Laura Cumbess (3-4, 2.78 ERA), who had seven strikeouts and three walks.
“When we were in Lexington, there may have been a lack of focus in the box, maybe not being aware of how (Cumbess) was throwing and what the umpire was calling strikes,” said Sandberg. “We’re a better team now than we were then and we’ll be more aware of how we’re going to be pitched to. We’ll go into the box with a plan and hopefully we’ll execute that plan and come out with some more runs.”
SOUTHEASTERN CONFERENCE TOURNAMENT:
NO. 11 GEORGIA vs. KENTUCKY
WHEN: 5 p.m. today
WHERE: Rhoads Stadium, Tuscaloosa, Ala.
RECORDS: Georgia (40-14, 17-11 SEC). Kentucky (29-27, 15-13).
PROBABLE PITCHING MATCHUPS: Georgia — Erin Arevalo (22-6, 1.47 ERA). Kentucky — Chandra Bell (16-10, 2.47 ERA).
PLAYERS TO WATCH: Georgia — Paige Wilson was named SEC Freshman of the Week for the fourth time after hitting .300 with a home run and three RBIs against Arkansas. … Freshman Gracie Goulder is hitting .261 with five home runs and 20 RBIs. … Junior Tess Sisto is batting .324 with eight home runs and 35 RBIs.
Kentucky — Senior Brittany Cervantes, a first-team All-SEC and a All-Defensive Team selection, leads the Wildcat offense with 12 home runs and 34 RBIs and is batting .314. … All-SEC Second Team selection Tara Dill is hitting .367 with one home run and 17 RBIs. … All-SEC Freshman Team pick Griffin Joiner is hitting .280 with one home run and 18 RBIs.
SERIES: Georgia and Kentucky have played each other 56 times, with the Bulldogs leading the series 44-12.
LAST MEETING: Georgia traveled to Kentucky in mid-April. The Wildcats won the opener 4-1 and took the second game 4-0, thanks in no small part to a no-hitter by Kentucky’s Lauren Cumbess. The Bulldogs came back to win the series finale 4-3, with Wilson going 3-for-3 with a home run, two RBIs and a stolen base.
SEASON AT A GLANCE: Georgia — Regardless of the outcome of the SEC tournament, Georgia is again headed for the postseason and should be in line to host a regional tournament. The Bulldogs closed out the regular season by winning two of three against Arkansas in Athens. Kentucky — The Wildcats swept LSU in Lexington and before that clinched their SEC series against then-No. 2 Florida.
NOTEWORTHY: According to ESPN, all eight teams that qualified for the SEC tournament rank among the top 40 teams in the country in RPI, … There are four ranked teams in the tournament — No. 3 Alabama, No. 5 Tennessee, No. 7 Florida and No. 11 Georgia. … In today’s first round, Florida meets LSU (noon), Tennessee plays Auburn (2:30 a.m.), Georgia opposes Kentucky (5 p.m.) and Alabama plays Mississippi State (8 p.m.). … The Georgia-Kentucky winner will play the Alabama-Mississippi State winner at 5:30 p.m. on Friday. … The tournament finals will be broadcast on ESPN. … The Bulldogs, who average five runs per game, were shut out four times this season — to Georgia Tech, Auburn, Kentucky and LSU; Kentucky, which averaged 3.6 runs per game, was blanked five times — by Florida, Tennessee, Louisville, Michigan and UCLA. … Georgia’s senior class — Kristyn Sandberg, Erin Arevalo, Brittney Hubbard, Ashley Pauly and Ashley Razey — rank sixth among all collegiate programs and third among SEC schools with a .780 winning percentage (188-53).