Han Vance on Georgia baseball: Coming off what I deemed the biggest win of the season so far, over top ten Clemson in North Augusta, South Carolina, the Diamond Dawgs won away from home while resting their best player, a sore Keegan McGovern. Behind versatile closer/third baseman Aaron Schunk, Georgia got the job done. Folks, it is time to get excited about the diamond. Veering into the personal and historic here for fun, as I contemplate the red-hot baseball program.
After five straight losing seasons under Coach Scott Stricklin, could another golden era of baseball suddenly be developing in Athens?
The University of Georgia, the nation’s first state-chartered public university, founded in Athens in 1785 and finally opened for business sixteen years later in 1801. The school’s founding president, Abraham Baldwin, and president at the time of initial student enrollment, Josiah Meigs, were Yale University men and the University of Georgia was in several ways modeled on Yale. Georgia first fielded a team and started playing college baseball a century and a year after inception, in 1886.
The village, then town, then city developed around the university with Broad Street boasting both the arch – the entrance to campus – and street-front rows of businesses that primarily cater to UGA. Unlike most college towns, there is no distance of geographic separation between Downtown Athens and UGA campus, creating an intensity of activity. Clarke County unified into a single municipality with Athens in 1990, my freshman year at Georgia.
The Diamond Dawgs won their only national title that year, going 4-1 in the College World Series, played annually in Omaha, Nebraska – my mother’s birth state. The College World Series has been played since 1947. Fun fact: Georgia football legend Charley Trippi – who I’ve met and is the only known living member of the 1942 national champions that won the school’s first Rose Bowl – was the Georgia baseball head coach from 1948-1949.
Georgia baseball only played in the College World Series once before 1990, a 1987 entry that saw the Bulldogs go 0-2, winless in Omaha. Coach Steve Webber led Georgia baseball from 1981-1996. Historically strong baseball program Mississippi State’s legendary coach Ron Polk led Georgia to the 2001 College World Series, where the Dawgs again failed 0-2. He bolted.
At the time of the hiring of Polk protege David Perno, who coached at UGA from 2002-2013, Georgia had tasted victory in the College World Series in only one season. Compared to any of the many strong programs across the nation, and more than a single dominant or couple dominant conferences the hardball power spreads far and wide, Georgia baseball simply falls short.
Perno’s top assistant, Jason Eller and I grew up together in the same high school social circles in Marietta, where I continued to see him over summers while he was at UGA. I’d run into him and his recruits and key players in Athens, too. Perno and Eller led Georgia to three College World Series and finished as national runner up in 2008, winning twice at the CWS in 2004 before being eliminated by Texas; going out 0-2 in 2006. Eller, currently the Division II power Georgia College (in Milledgeville) head coach, left UGA at the close of the Perno era for a three-year job leading a rebuilding Augusta State. We’d talk down there, as I visited my father-in-law Colonel Buddy Buck. Eller was a good source of info for me when he was working in Athens. I first covered the Diamond Dawgs as a writer in 2007 and 2008 was a wild ride. UGA also won the SEC basketball tournament and finished an underrated #2 in the nation in football.
Georgia won the first SEC baseball championship way back in 1933, and also took home the league crown in: 1953, 1954, 2001, 2004 (co-champs) and 2008. Easy to see that the Perno/Eller tenure was the brightest of baseball bright spots overall. The league is at an all-time high currently, with #1 Florida defending their national championship and a record ten teams recently ranked.
Georgia baseball tasted home defeat only twice this season at 3,291-seat Foley Field, founded in 1966. Nationally-ranked Kentucky visits Friday-Sunday.