They did it with determination. They did it with focus. They did it by themselves.
Georgia Southern came home from Greenville, S.C., late Sunday night with a Southern Conference Championship that few outside the program truly believed could be won, but everyone in blue-and-white knew was rightfully theirs.
The Eagles (42-15) showed emotion on Sunday evening rarely seen throughout the course of the season. Once Phillip Porter closed his mitt around a falling ball in right field behind Statesboro’s own Kevin Bowles, the celebration started and lasted long after the Fluor Field crowd has dissipated – save a few groundsmen tending the field and grips dismantling scaffolds and packing away television cameras in the concourse.
The winners posed with fans, the rowdy student section, each other, fellow classmen, with the trophy, in the front of the scoreboard and in every other fashion they could muster up in their now child-like state.
It was a sight.
For a team that comes to the ballpark everyday as businessmen, playing with a stoic sense of purpose and duty, the dog pile just to the right of and behind the pitcher’s mound after Porter’s catch was one true hill of happiness.
Even the stately Griffin Benedict couldn’t help but smile. The senior catcher creating his own legacy led them there by example: never complaining, never fighting, never hanging his head. Just goin’ to work.
The Eagles did it with pitching and defense this year, but it was the unleashing of the beast in Kyle Blackburn that put them over the top. They call him “Sugar Bear”, and his efforts were indeed sweet.
In a stalemate of a title game, with two on in the top of the sixth, Blackburn delivered again, absolutely crushing a deep home run over the right field wall and sending the GSU faithful into a frenzy, giving the Eagles a 3-0 lead.
The shot went so high it opened the ominous clouds hanging above and spewed forth a heavy downpour of rain that threatening to quickly strip away all the momentum and energy Blackburn’s blast had given the day’s visiting team.
But nothing would stand in Southern’s way this day, this week, this year. The Eagles came back after a lengthy rain delay and added four runs over the final three innings. By the time the 9th rolled round, a 7-1 margin was too much for Elon to overcome.
The Eagles were champions, and all was right in Eagle Nation.
Monday afternoon, reality slapped GSU square in the face. While the NCAA Tournament selections were announced, the Eagles watched as teams were placed all over the Southeast.
Atlanta – nope.
Chapel Hill – nope.
Gainesville – nope.
Greenville, NC. – nope.
Clemson – nope.
Louisville – nope.
Tallahassee – nope.
Oxford – nope.
Baton Rouge – nope.
Instead of being rewarded for their 42 wins, their top 30 RPI, a 4-0 record in their conference tournament and an upset of the league’s best team, GSU was sent across the country to face Cal State-Fullerton and two other West coast teams starting Friday.
Not a single team from the West must travel across the Mississippi. Elon, the SoCon runner-up, heads to Atlanta along with fourth-seeded Georgia State. No. 3 George Mason gets to travel down I-95 to play East Carolina.
If the Selection Committee’s job is to divide the tournament into regions – hence the word “Regional” – it is a wonder how at the end of the day how GSU was an odd-man out of No. 2 seeds.
Texas State gets to play in Austin. Texas A&M travels to Fort Worth. Miami heads to Gainesville. Alabama makes the short drive to Clemson. South Carolina plays at ECU. Coastal Carolina is UNC bound. Middle Tennessee State visits Louisville. Arkansas plays at neighbor Oklahoma. Missouri heads south to Mississippi as does Kansas State to Rice. Georgia, who is 6-15 since April 19, plays at Florida State.
And those are just some of the injustices Georgia Southern could point to.
But they won’t.
Instead, they’re thrilled to go to Cali. Many have never been before. They’re thrilled to face one of college baseball’s powerhouses in the Titans of CSF. They’re thrilled to be representing their school, their conference and, at this point, an entire region of the country.They’ll go again as under-Eagles, a team not many will expect to push through to the next round. That is just fine with this team. They’ll do it by themselves.