Monday, November 28, 2016

Georgia Profile: Dawgs Must Replace Large, Heavy Senior Class

General Overview/2016 Recap: The Bulldogs began the 2016 season with eleven straight victories, including the first ten all by run-rule. In their ten games, the Bulldogs outscored their opponents by a combined score of 108-7.

Lu Harris-Champer's Dawgs took their first loss to future fellow Women's College World Series compatriots UCLA in a final result that saw the Bulldogs in another run-rule game, this time on the receiving end of the lopsided score.

After a 4-1 showing at the Mary Nutter Collegiate Classic, including the loss to UCLA, the Athens-hosted Georgia Softball Classic saw the Dawgs post another identical 4-1 record over the weekend, this time with the loss coming to Minnesota.

Conference play began for the Bulldogs with a surprising series loss to South Carolina. A sweep of Texas A&M followed, a weekend that included a five-inning, run-rule victory over the Aggies.

The Dawgs won both games of a home-and-home series against rival Georgia Tech, shutting out the archrival Yellow Jackets in both matchups.

A series loss to LSU in Athens, followed by an eight-inning loss to North Carolina put the Dawgs into a serious "valley" near the midpoint of the season. A sweep of Missouri and series win over Ole Miss were the remaining bright spots on the Dawgs' schedule; series losses to Tennessee and Alabama and a sweep at the hands of Auburn were the low points of SEC play for the Bulldogs.

It was a quick one-and-done at the SEC tournament, with a 4-2 loss to Ole Miss sending the Bulldogs home early. Shortly thereafter, the Dawgs somewhat-inexplicably earned the #16 overall seed in the NCAA Tournamen and "got hot" at the right time.

A 3-1 Regional round put the Bulldogs in an all-SEC Super Regional matchup with then-twice-defending champion Florida. The Dawgs swept the Gators in convincing fashion, including a shutout of the Gators' prolific offense by a score of 3-0 in Game 1.

At the World Series, the Dawgs bested Florida State before losses to Auburn and LSU ended their season.

Chelsea Wilkinson's graduation leaves something of a
gaping hole in the Bulldogs' pitching circle.
(Photo: Don Martukovich)
Around the Horn in 2016: (reflects departed players)
P – (Chelsea Wilkinson); Brittany Gray; Kylie Bass
C – Maeve McGuire
1B – (Tina Iosefa)
2B – (Alex Hugo)
3B – Alyssa DiCarlo
SS – Lacey Sumerlin
LF – Cortni Emanuel
CF – Samantha LaZear
RF – Sydni Emanuel
DP – (Kaylee Puailoa)
Carrying the Clipboards: Head coach Lu Harris-Champer must be considered one of the nation's finest, and surely at the top of the conference, as her Bulldogs are contenders and regularly in the top twenty-five year-in and year-out. In her sixteen seasons at the helm of the program (2017 will be her seventeenth), the Bulldogs have reached the NCAA postseason in fifteen straight years, including three times the Women's College World Series. She'll likely reach the 800-win mark for her Bulldog career during the '17 campaign.

Former UGA volunteer assistant Tony Baldwin has been back in Athens as a full-time assistant since 2014. Historically a baseball coach, Baldwin can be credited with the continued progression of the Bulldog offense since his return to Athens. Now-graduated first baseman Tina Iosefa broke the SEC single-season RBI record with eighty-seven in her senior year, while Alyssa DiCarlo led the nation's freshmen with sixty-seven RBI on the year and eleven home runs, nine of them against conference opponents.

LSU great Rachele Fico must receive much of the praise for the development of the Dawgs' pitching staff during their World Series run in 2016. In her first season in Athens and just her second as a full-time assistant coach at any level, she oversaw her staff to a team ERA of 2.27 with an opponent's batting average of .221. Senior Chelsea Wilkinson and freshman Kylie Bass both posted individual Earned Run Averages under 2.00, while sophomore Brittany Gray enjoyed a still-respectable ERA just over 3.00. Fico's staff posted better than a 3/1 strikeout/walk ratio.

Alex Hugo is the Dawgs' greatest offensive subtraction; they'll not
only miss her bat, but her fiery, veteran leadership, as well.
Additions: The Dawgs will bring in an eleven-member freshman class, among them twins Kaylie and Karlie Harding, as well as fellow in-state natives Mary Wilson Avant and Alysen Febrey and California native Mahlena O'Neal, among others.
Subtractions: The Bulldogs said good-bye to possible their most talented senior class since the Class of 2011 that included Megan Wiggins, Taylor Schlopy, and Alisa Goler. Pitcher Chelsea Wilkinson; second baseman Alex Hugo; center fielder Samantha LaZear; first baseman Tina Iosefa; utility player Kaylee Puailoa; and catcher Katie Browne all finished their careers in the black and red.

Scheduling: *This article will be updated when the team's regular-season schedule is released.

The Dawgs will play at the Mary Nutter Classic's second weekend of games, where they will match up against UCLA; BYU; Notre Dame; Northwestern; and Cal State Fullerton.

In conference play, they'll match up against South Carolina and defending conference champ Auburn at home in Athens, while they'll travel to Florida and Texas A&M, among others. They'll avoid facing off against Tennessee and Alabama.

Potential Strengths/Weaknesses ---
Strengths – Alyssa DiCarlo enjoyed a tremendous breakout freshman campaign and will be heavily relied upon to be a powerful bat in the Dawgs' batting order. Fico, for reasons previously mentioned, enjoyed a breakout season herself as the program's pitching coach, and with Chelsea Wilkinson's departure, she will have some work to do to develop the remaining Bulldogs pitchers into top-level hurlers, and fast. She has proven she has the coaching "chops" to do just that. Kylie Bass and Brittany Gray, a sophomore and junior, respectively, showed productivity already a season ago and, when pressed to make up for Wilkinson's stead, should show the ability to come through.

Weaknesses – The Dawgs lost a lot of power and impact in the midst of their lineup, including Alex Hugo, Tina Iosefa, and Samantha LaZear. Nearly every member of their departed senior class was a starter at some point and making up for that kind of loss all at once is tough for even the best programs. In the same breath, Chelsea Wilkinson's absence will force Gray and Bass into elevated roles beyond what they have ever pitched in to this point, and while both possess the skill set, it remains to be seen if they will thrive or flounder under the pressure of such a situation. While the Dawgs' NCAA tournament run was impressive, including the upset of Florida in Supers, there was also an air of flukiness to the victories and it is up to Harris-Champer's squad to prove that was not the case.

Outlook for 2017: The Bulldogs surprised and impressed at the end of the postseason a season ago, but lost to graduation many of the pieces that made that run possible. The toughest immediate hill to overcome may be for the pitching staff to make up for Chelsea Wilkinson's work load in the circle. If Rachele Fico can facilitate such a breakout, the Dawgs may be dangerous in postseason play once again. If not, they could easily be lost admist a tight conference race.

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