The following article first appeared on D1Softball.com. For more like it, you can use coupon code NCAA2021 to get a 20% discount for an annual subscription to DIBaseball.com or D1Softball.com.
Georgia was preparing for a youth movement this season. The Bulldogs had a 10-player freshmen class arriving to bolster their five freshmen that joined the team last year.
Georgia planned for the group to fill the void of the departing veterans and begin the collective bonding process for future success.
But the Dawgs got some unexpected insurance after the 2020 season was cut short because of the coronavirus pandemic. Several seniors have returned to provide a mix of youth and experience on the 27-player roster.
“That has kind of been our MO over the years. We have a big class come in and grow them together,” said Georgia associate head coach and recruiting coordinator Tony Baldwin. “We knew this class was always going to be big. We just didn’t anticipate Covid happening.”
EXTRA INNINGS: The longest games in WCWS college softball history
Recruiting a large class to build around is a formula that’s worked in the past for Georgia under head coach Lu Harris-Champer, leading to trips to the Women’s College World Series once the players grow and mature.
“That is the way Lou has always done it,” Baldwin said. “Lou has a passion for the investment and the connection with players. She loves nothing more than rolling up her sleeves and getting out there and training with a group from the bottom and growing to see how good they can be.”
Two key pieces of the freshmen class are right-handed pitchers Britton Rogers and Madison Kerpics. Georgia was expecting them to shoulder a large portion of the innings in the circle this season. But getting an extra year from seniors Mary Wilson Avant and Alley Cutting gives the rookies a longer learning curve.
“Having Alley and Mary back really allows us to take some pressure off Britton and Madison,” Baldwin said. “It gives us a chance to pick and choose spots for the freshmen so they can experience some success and grow and get their feet wet without being thrown into the fire quite as much.”
The Georgia coaches have been pleased by the early results during fall workouts and scrimmages.
“We love the energy, excitement and passion the young players bring,” Baldwin said. “We’ve had a really good mix of the returners who have been through the battles and have been really good about helping the younger kids along. The competition has been great. We have seen some of our returners kind of step up their game.”
Rogers and Kerpics highlight a class filled with athletic players covering a range of positions.
Infielder Ellie Armistead is a three-sport standout from Virginia.
“She is an exceptional defensive midfielder and has some legit pop in her bat,” Baldwin said. “She is having to grow her game and adjust to playing at a higher level. She’s had her bumps and bruises and ups and downs like most freshmen. But she’s a really good athlete.”
Outfielder Jayda Kearney was a three-time high school All-American in New Jersey who Baldwin describes as “an advanced hitter and just a good athlete and very good defensive player,” while outfielder/first baseman Sydney Chamblee is “a good athlete with a good bat.”
Infielder Aniyah Black, a three-sport star out of South Georgia, is recovering from an injury.
“We expect her back before the season. How much it will slow her down is really still up in the air,” Baldwin said. “But she is a good player and somebody that people are going to know who she is sooner rather than later.”
The Dawgs have depth in the circle this season with the return of Avant and Cutting along with senior right-hander Lauren Mathis
Wilson was 11-4 with a 1.39 ERA, 120 strikeouts and 35 walks in 75.1 innings pitched in 2020.
“She has really grown each and every year,” Baldwin said. “More than anything, she is more comfortable being who she is, and she is capable of being one of the top pitchers in the country. I am not sure she always viewed herself that way. But her stuff and ability puts her in that category.”
Cutting was 5-1 with a 1.88 ERA, 39 strikeouts and 13 walks in 37.1 IP last season.
“One of the areas I think our team has significantly improved this year is on the defensive side of the ball and that only makes Alley that much more effective as a ground ball pitcher,” Baldwin said. “She has good velocity and a heavy drop.”
Mathis was 7-0 with a 2.89 ERA, 82 strikeouts and 21 walks in 46.0 IP last season.
“Heading into last year, she was throwing the ball the best of the three honestly and really coming into her own,” Baldwin said. “Then she had a little forearm tweak in one of the early games that set her back a little bit and she never quite got back to the place she was heading into the season. So I am excited to see her get back.”
Georgia returns three of its top hitters by average in sophomore shortstop Sydney Kuma, junior first baseman Lacey Fincher and sophomore third baseman Sara Mosley.
Fincher batted .417 with six home runs and 26 RBIs in 2020.
“She was really just starting to hit her groove last year and you usually don’t say that about someone hitting over .400,” Baldwin said. “But she hadn’t gotten hot yet and was just starting to get hot.”
Kuma hit a team-leading .438 with eight doubles and 24 RBIs.
“She is a really great athlete and was really just learning the game at this level last year,” Baldwin said. “The sky’s the limit for her. She’s an exceptional player. She hits for extra bases and hits for power.”
Mosley made an immediate impact, batting .397 with five home runs, nine doubles and 31 RBIs.
“She just has a knack for hitting,” Baldwin said. “She performed really well as a freshman and really well in her first SEC series.”
Junior outfielder CJ Landrum, a speedy slapper, had a good fall, along with junior infielder Savana Sikes.
“Savana is just a gamer and a competitor that has really played well in our intrasquad games,” Baldwin said. “She is one where sometimes stats don’t tell the whole story. She just plays winning softball.”
Georgia doesn’t have team captains, but Avant, Fincher, Sikes and Jessica Morgan are players that help set the tone.
“We talk a lot about what it is to be a leader,” Baldwin said. “You have to be somebody people want to follow and that tells you a lot about your personality and your perspective. The ones that have a voice right now on our team are because people want to follow them.”
Although the pandemic prevented them from being together on the field for a long stretch of time, the Dawgs connected in other ways.
“The other piece that has been kind of a side benefit is that with all the Zooms and conversations and things that happened over the course of the summer, in many ways we have better communication and our team chemistry is really strong right now,” Baldwin said. “I think that is a benefit of just being in more contact than what we have been in the past leading into the school year.”
The Dawgs had three significant players leave the program following the 2020 season. Jordan Doggett transferred to Oklahoma State and Ciara Bryan and Justice Milz transferred to Louisiana.
Doggett batted .360 with 18 RBIs last season while starting in left field. Bryan hit .384 with a team-leading 11 home runs, 31 RBIs and 39 runs scored while stealing 15 bases in 16 attempts as a starting outfielder. Milz hit .231 with nine RBIs at the DP spot.
“Justice decided she was not going to play this year and was just going to finish up her education. Perhaps at this point she had a change of heart and she missed it. I don’t know,” Baldwin said. “She hasn’t been with our team, but I am happy for her and hope that she does get to play somewhere and leave on her own terms.”
Baldwin said the conversations with Bryan had been ongoing since the school year began until she made her decision. Bryan and Milz will play at UL for Gerry Glasco, an assistant at UGA from 2009-14.
“Ciara is a great kid,” Baldwin said. “Certainly the thing I can say about both of them is I am really proud of them and wish them the best in this next chapter for them.”