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GSU, UNC play today in Athens Regional
Georgia Southern softball head coach Annie Smith. - photo by Georgia Southern AMR

2012 NCAA Athens Regional
2:30 p.m., GSU vs. North Carolina
5 p.m., Coastal Carolina vs. Georgia
Noon, Winner Game 1 vs. Winner Game 2
2:30 p.m., Loser Game 1 vs. Loser Game 2
5 p.m., Winner Game 4 vs. Loser Game 3
Noon, Winner Game 3 vs. Winner Game 5
2:30 p.m. (if necessary), Winner Game 6 vs. Loser Game 6

    Georgia Southern softball first-year head coach Annie Smith said she realized her team was special not only by the way it competed in a 1-0 loss to Georgia on March 28 in Athens, but also by the way it responded March 31-April 1 against Chattanooga.
    On March 31 in Statesboro, GSU split a doubleheader with the Mocs. The Eagles won the opener, 2-0, but lost the second game, 9-4. The next day, GSU produced a 6-2 victory to win the series. It was the Eagles’ first series victory over Chattanooga since 2008.
    “I’ve done this for 15 years, so I’ve been around teams awhile,” Smith said. “I knew we had the talent. And once we started playing, you know, we were never blown out. Even early in the season I thought, ‘Man, this team’s got some potential.’ My coaching friends would be like, ‘Your pitchers are good’ and things like that.
    “And then when we won the Chattanooga series, UTC’s always been big in our conference, they’ve won the last five regular seasons, and when we won that series, 2-1, I knew. That was huge.”
    Accomplishments keep getting bigger for GSU, which went on to win the Southern Conference regular-season championship and then won the SoCon Tournament championship, earning an automatic bid into the NCAA Division I Softball Championships.
    GSU (42-18) is the No. 3 seed in the Athens Regional and will play second-seeded North Carolina (41-13), of the Atlantic Coast Conference, at 2:30 p.m. today at Jack Turner Stadium. Top-seeded Georgia (41-15), of the Southeastern Conference, will play fourth-seeded Coastal Carolina (43-18), the Big South Conference Tournament champion, at 5 p.m. today in the double-elimination tournament. All games will be streamed free on
    Georgia is among 16 regional host sites for the 2012 NCAA Division I Softball Championships.
    GSU is among 64 teams selected to the NCAA Tournament. Thirty conferences were awarded automatic qualification and 34 slots were filled with at-large selections. The Eagles earned an automatic bid by winning the SoCon Tournament.
    Each of the 16 regional winners will advance to the Super Regional round of play May 25-26. Eight Super Regional sites will play host to a best-of-three games series. The eight winners will advance to the NCAA Division I Women’s College World Series in Oklahoma City on May 31-June 6.
    Today marks GSU’s first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2006. That year, the Eagles played in the Athens Regional as the No. 4 seed and lost to UGA in the opener before beating Coastal Carolina in an elimination game.
    GSU is 0-5 all-time against North Carolina, which is making its 10th appearance in the NCAA Tournament in the last 12 years. The Tar Heels won the ACC regular-season championship.
    At the ACC Tournament in Chapel Hill, N.C., the top-seeded UNC beat eighth-seeded Boston College, 10-4, but lost, 4-1, to fourth-seeded Virginia Tech in the semifinals.
    GSU departed Statesboro on Wednesday afternoon. The team practiced at 9:15 a.m. Thursday in Athens.
    “It’s exciting,” Smith said. “I’m really happy for these seniors. It’s my first year and I wanted them to go out on a high note. I’ve been to regionals and I wanted the team to experience that. I’m really happy that they got a (SoCon championship) ring, they got the (SoCon) championship. They’ve worked really hard for me all year. They practiced great, and I’m just really happy for them. And this experience will be great for them.”
    Smith has produced an impressive rookie season as the Eagles’ head coach. Maggie Johnson resigned Aug. 4, 2011, as GSU’s head coach after three seasons. She guided the Eagles to an 87-80 record.
    On Aug. 20, 2011, GSU hired Smith after nine seasons as an assistant at Mississippi State. She was an assistant at Missouri for six seasons before arriving at Mississippi State. Smith reached the postseason nine times with Mississippi State and Missouri.
    At GSU, Smith scheduled some of the nation’s toughest opponents. The Eagles beat Coastal Carolina, 5-2, on Feb. 12 in Conway, S.C. GSU lost, 2-0, to South Florida on Feb. 19 in Tampa, Fla. The Eagles beat Kentucky, 2-1, in eight innings Feb. 25 in Statesboro. GSU lost, 7-0 and 9-0, to Tennessee on March 13 in Knoxville, Tenn.
    “We competed very well against Georgia but we just, all year, even against South Florida, which is highly ranked, we competed against them,” said Smith, whose Eagles finished the regular season with a school-record 38-17 record overall and 22-2 in the SoCon.
    A major reason for GSU’s success is its stable of four pitchers: Sarah Purvis (23-10, 1.54 earned-run average), Alllie Miles (8-5, 2.26 ERA), Brooke Red (10-1, 1.58 ERA) and Marla Thompson (1-2, 1.12 ERA).
    Purvis, a 5-foot-7 right-handed sophomore from Warner Robins, has started in 31 of the 35 games in which she has played and has pitched 208 2/3 innings.
    Miles, a 5-foot-5, right-handed sophomore from Dacula, has started in 17 of the 23 games in which she has played and has pitched 89 2/3 innings.
    Red, a 6-foot right-handed freshman from Warner Robins, has started in 12 of the 24 games in which she has played and has pitched 88 2/3 innings.
    Thompson, a 5-foot-6 right-handed freshman from Statesboro (Screven County High School graduate), has played in 14 games and has pitched 25 innings.
    GSU does not carry the burden of having to rely on one pitcher.
    “It’s immense,” Smith said of the luxury. “From Day 1, my plan was always to try to throw all four of them, get them all innings. One, for us, we need to win our tournament to get the bid. Two, I wanted to make sure everyone was rested. Hitters get better the more they see a pitcher. The less (opponents) see one of my pitchers, the better we are. That’s a luxury. I love it.”
    Smith said Purvis will start on the mound today.
    "I have confidence in all of them but right now I’ll start Sarah," Smith said. "The great thing is they’ve been throwing all year. I’m not in a situation where I’m scrambling. I’ve had them all in important games.”
    GSU defeated College of Charleston, 6-2, to win the SoCon Tournament on Saturday in Boone, N.C. It was the Eagles’ third league title and first since 2006. Miles struck out eight and allowed eight hits to earn the win. She was named to the All-SoCon Tournament team. Miles was joined by Tabby Douberley, Andrea Tarashuk and Purvis, who was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player.
    Smith is the SoCon Coach of the Year. Purvis is the SoCon Pitcher of the Year. Red was named to the All-SoCon Freshman team.
    GSU’s success isn’t limited to coaching and pitching. Senior Marie Fogle, a former Effingham County High School star, was selected to the All-SoCon First Team. Senior Hannah Ennis was named to the All-SoCon Second Team.
    “At this point, you have to have timely hitting,” Smith said. “You have to try to manufacture some runs. No one is going to give up 10 home runs. It’s not going to be easy. We have to have good at-bats and be aggressive. I’ve been getting timely hitting throughout my lineup all year. Someone may go cold but someone else gets hot. I’ve been very fortunate to have different players on our team step up for us. And that’s what we’re going to continue to have to do.”
    Fogle leads GSU in batting average (.399), hits (73), runs (37), slugging percentage (.656), on-base percentage (.481), triples (3), home runs (9) and stolen bases (11). Mackenzie Williams, a senior from Appling County High School in Baxley, leads the Eagles team in RBIs (34) and walks (47). Andrea Tarashuk, a junior from Flemington, N.J., leads GSU in doubles (16). Tabby Douberley, a junior and former Effingham County High School star, is hitting .448 with two home runs and eight RBIs over the last 10 games.
    The Eagles might face North Carolina pitcher Lori Spingola (31-9, 1.97 ERA), the ACC Pitcher of the Year. The 5-foot-11, sophomore right-hander from Atlanta was a three-time all-state performer in high school. Spingola was named GHSA Pitcher of the Year after leading Marist to Class AAAA state titles 2007 and 2008.

    Noell Barnidge may be reached at (912) 489-9408.