1997 Softball History
After 18 months of planning, recruiting, and waiting, the first edition of the Georgia softball team proved to be one of the most excited tickets in Athens in 1997. Despite a 25-33 overall record and a disappointing 7-21 finish in the SEC, the young Bulldogs fell nowhere short of giving the curious softball fans something to cheer about and enjoy each time they took the field.
The Bulldogs' largest crowd of the season came on opening day with 671 fans watching history in the making as Georgia took to the softball field for the first time, and many were as anxious for the first crop of the newest Bulldog athletes. But none were as excited as head coach Alleen Hawkins who had waited her entire life for a situation like the one she has found at Georgia.
On the opening day against Mercer, designated player Jen Bell, who was one of seven Bulldog freshmen to start that afternoon, hit two towering shots into the outfield bleachers- in her first two collegiate at bats- as Georgia won its first game 5-1. And if such dramatics weren't enough, in game two, the Bulldogs rallied in the bottom of the seventh inning as junior left fielder Jamie Rausch doubled home the winning run in the 2-1 victory.
It was that same intensity and excitement that lasted throughout the inaugural season for the Bulldogs as they seemed to have a flare for the dramatic. Georgia won eight games in its final at bat, but on the other side of the coin, lost 10 games during the opponents' last at bat.
Georgia would win its first seven games of the year and was 12-2 after the first three weeks with wins over every other division I program in Georgia, including an 8-2 victory over rival Georgia Tech, and a three-game sweep over Georgia Southern. The Bulldogs even received a vote for the top 25, but as the season went along, the competition became tougher, and the wins became harder to come by. Georgia lost eight of its next nine games and never recovered, winning only 12 more games the remainder of the season.
Georgia played eight games against ranked opponents, and played four more games versus teams that were ranked at one point in the season, not to mention a doubleheader against defending Division II national champion Kennesaw State. The Bulldogs, however, were a combined 0-14 in these games.
"Close but not quite," could have been the slogan for the season, as six of these games were decided by two runs or less, and overall Georgia was 6-9 in one-run contests. But instead, Hawkins preferred to say the Bulldogs were "Building a Tradition," and she hopes that proves to be true.
Georgia started as many as seven freshmen at one time and never started fewer than nine freshman and sophomores combined. Georgia's only upperclassmen were Rausch and junior catcher Heather Boyer. This duo provided much of the Bulldogs' offensive power. Rausch was voted the team's most valuable offensive player, leading the team in homers, runs, RBIs, triples, and slugging percentage, while Boyer was tops on the team in batting average and doubles and second in runs. Rausch finished second in the SEC in home runs with eight, and Boyer was eighth in the league in batting. With these two players returning in 1998, the Bulldogs' offensive struggles should be remedied as they look to improve on a 10th place finish in the SEC in team batting.
As the Bulldogs tried to overcome being shut out 11 times on the season, many times it was up to freshman Natalie Price and sophomore Rhonda Coffelt to try to lead Georgia to victory. Price, who was perhaps the league's top freshman pitcher, was voted the team's most valuable player, and for good reason. Her overall 15-20 record is deceptive as she kept Georgia close in nearly every game, finishing with a 1.79 ERA. Price was one of only four SEC pitchers to finish in the top 10 in nine of the 10 major pitching categories and the only freshman among that group. She was also the only pitcher in the league to finish with at least 15 wins, 30 complete games, 200 innings, and 200 strikeouts.
Coffelt overcame a shaky mid-season slump to come on as one of the top pitchers in SEC games, Coffelt tossed a one-hitter against Ole Miss and finished among the league lead in SEC games, allowing less than six hits in a game and compiling a 2.76 ERA. In her final four starts (24.2 innings) Cofelt allowed only two earned runs, but could only muster a 1-3 record. Georgia showed a lot of progress at the plate, but could never manage to get several players hot at the same time. As a result, the Bulldogs had many heroes on the season, which added to Hawkins' idea of total team effort.
Sophomore first baseman Jessi Cerra had her share of big plays and was named to the inaugural All-SEC team as she earned second team honors. Cerra finished with a .289 batting average, and led the Bulldogs with 47 hits and was the SEC leader in walks with 22 and fielding percentage for first basemen at .995.
Third baseman Chrissy Gavin, yet another sophomore and a Furman transfer along with Rausch and Coffelt, also provided offensive punch, finishing third on the team in home runs (3) and second in triples (2) and stolen bases (9-11).
But freshmen were still the rule and not the exception in 1997. Other than Rausch, Gavin, and Cerra, freshmen started at least half of the games at every other position, and were vital to the Bulldogs' success. Bell led all SEC freshmen with six home runs, second baseman Lisa Schutt finished with 10 stolen bases and was voted the team's most valuable defensive player, and now departed designated player Sabrina Touchberry established Georgia records with six consecutive hits (6) and with RBIs in a single game (5).
Georgia, however, lacked the needed experience and seemed to be one play away each game. Playing one of the conference's most difficult schedules meant the Bulldogs took their share of lumps in their first season, but the young Georgia squad put a scare into some of the nation's top teams. The Bulldogs led Louisiana Tech 1-0 in the final innings of the game before succumbing to a late Lady Techster rally. They fell to No. 6 Michigan 4-3, and gave up only two hits to No. 24 Northeast Louisiana but lost 2-0. Georgia also lost four games to No. 3 South Carolina, two by a 2-0 score and the others 3-0, and 7-4. Georgia also lost its final four games of the season to Florida, each in one run affairs.
Although Hawkins will return every starter, 1998 will be completely different for Georgia. The Bulldogs' days of playing home games on intramural field No. 11 are over, as they move into their permanent home at the Women's Athletic Complex off South Milledge Avenue. Georgia will also be a year older and a year wiser, and the Bulldogs hope the freshman mistakes of 1997 will be over.