June 1, 2010

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By Wendy Parker
Special to NCAA.com

ATHENS, Ga. - When they reached the Women's College World Series last year for the very first time, the Georgia Bulldogs were one of the youngest teams in the country.

Now that they're returning after a two-game demolition of California in the Athens Super Regional, they're aiming to surpass their impressive debut performance in Oklahoma City and further cement their profile as one of the nation's elite softball programs.

As Georgia demonstrated in posting 17 runs in two games over the weekend, its powerful offensive attack has become even more fearsome than in 2009, when the Bulldogs made World Series history with seven home runs.

But that prowess at the plate doesn't begin to explain Georgia's rise to powerhouse status. As the defeated Golden Bears can attest, Georgia possesses some valuable intangible qualities that have been hard to match.

After her team was eliminated 10-1 Saturday, California pitcher Jolene Henderson explained what they are: "We could have played with a little more energy out there. I think the team in the other dugout just had more energy than we did."

That energy, the result of what Georgia players and coach Lu Harris-Champer say is an especially tight bond they share, has enabled them to reach new heights in the 14-year history of the program. The consequences for opponents who give Georgia even a sliver of an opportunity to use that energy - Harris-Champer calls it "synergy" - can be severe.

After letting Game 1 of the Super Regional get away in a hurry in a 7-0 loss Friday, the Golden Bears quickly responded to a Georgia run in the first inning of Game 2 by tying the game in their first at-bat Saturday.

But Henderson, encountering control problems, loaded the bases with one out in the second, then pitched Megan Wiggins to a full count. When left fielder Jamia Reid purposely let a foul fly ball drop, partly out of respect for the speed of Georgia's Lindsay Trout at third base, the Bulldogs made California pay dearly.

Wiggins certainly was energized at having another chance, cracking the next pitch over the wall in right-center field. Her grand slam gave the Bulldogs a commanding 5-1 lead, which they doubled before the five-inning run rule was applied.

"It's Georgia softball," Wiggins said of her team's determination. "It's important to all of us.

"One thing we fight to do each and every season is come together as a team because it really allows everything on the field to be easier. You begin to rely on your teammates rather than having just individuals. I think people start to see how it works and they start to buy into and believe what we're doing. It's a good feeling, and it's taken us to great places."

It helps that Georgia, which has no seniors, is going back to a familiar place with a familiar cast. Trout is one of just three newcomers to Harris-Champer's regular lineup, along with right fielder Brittney Hubbard and pitcher Sarah McCloud, who is 12-1 in her first season as the main starter.

McCloud, who won both games of the super regional, had to assume a larger responsibility after spending her first two seasons behind now-departed Christie Hamilton. Georgia's clubhouse camaraderie has made that task easier.

Harris-Champer also raves about how her players have worked hard to improve without additional prodding from the coaching staff.

"They're always down there [in the batting cage] hitting," she said. "As a coach, you like to see it when they take control of themselves like that."

The players also have taken it upon themselves to openly discuss their main objective several times during the season.

"I think that we've talked about going back to Oklahoma City this year because we know what it took to get there last year," McCloud said. "We wanted to work really hard to make that happen again. It's a great feeling to get back there, and we're excited about the chance to play out there again."

On Thursday, the Bulldogs will face a familiar World Series foe in defending NCAA champion Washington. Georgia eventually was eliminated by the Huskies a year ago, but not before hanging a loss on them and becoming one of the last four teams remaining.

Washington is led by All-American pitcher Danielle Lawrie, who overcame a loss to Oklahoma in the first game of that super regional to pace the Huskies back to the World Series.

But after watching her team fall to Georgia, California coach Diane Ninemire wasn't making any predictions about how the rematch might play out.

"Georgia has the batters to keep up with the strong pitching Washington has to offer," she said. "That will be an exciting series."