Rarely is a team that finishes fourth in their final conference standings considered a success. I mean seriously, what would you call a team that has a 31-30 record?
Now what if I told you that the fourth place finish was really just between six total teams--not twelve. That's right. Out of 12 total teams in the conference, the Georgia Bulldogs finished fourth only on their side of the division! Wow. For a state that pumps out elite high school baseball prospects on a perennial basis, it looks as if this season has been quite a disappointment. Until last weekend, when the Dogs won three consecutive do-or-die games in the SEC tournament to punch their ticket to the NCAA Regionals in Corvallas, OR.
Rest assured, while deflating at times earlier in the year, how the Diamond Dogs have finished this season has been nothing short of inspirational.
It starts with being in the SEC Eastern division. Georgia shares the same division with the defending National Champion South Carolina Gamecocks--who ended the regular season #1 in the land. Their only serious mark coming into the year was where their quality starts were going to come from. With the departure of their one-two punch: Sam Dyson and innings eater Blake Cooper, the Gamecocks needed Omaha savior Michael Roth (11-3, 1.17 ERA) to transition from situational relief pitcher to solid starter. Which he did swimmingly.
In addition to enduring sights and sounds from the title holder on a weekly basis, the Dogs also had Baseball America's Preseason #1 ranked team (Florida), and a team with arguably the best weekend staff in the country (Vanderbilt) in their division. Both teams spent time as king of the mountain at some point during the year as well.
Then there is the schedule, which just so happened to be the toughest in the nation.
"We pride ourselves on playing a tough schedule," Coach David Perno said. "It probably helped us make this run [in the SEC's]."
The Bulldogs played 34 games against Top 25 opponents. They also won 16 of those games against the likes of #9 LSU, #10 UCLA and #16 Baylor. Georgia was #1 in the nation in both categories.
Hey, at least they led the nation in a few things, right?
When scrounging up a silver lining for the tough draw of divisional opponents and demanding non-conference schedule, at least the Dogs knew what they were getting into before the season started. But what happened during the rubber game against Florida State on March 6th cast an ominous shadow on the team very early in the season.
In the third inning, there was a soft line drive hit into the left-center gap of the outfield. With not much air under it, left fielder Zach Cone and center fielder Johnathan Taylor both sped after the sinking line drive. Instead of one player calling for it, both players dived and collided into each other. Cone got up with a bleeding head, dazed and disoriented. Taylor had no such luck.
The top of Taylor's head hit Cone's hip, breaking his neck. He was paralyzed.
So now, Taylor, who led his team with a great work ethic and a dynamite smile on the diamond is doing the same and inspiring all with his dogged rehabilitation efforts.
He is their rally cry! He is their strength!
He is the constant reminder proving win or lose this weekend, no outcome can dismiss what they did this year.
He is the inspirational call to arms in a season that's been far from average.