Our 24th-ranked Georgia Bulldogs will conclude the 2013 Regular Season at home against the 7th-ranked LSU Tigers from Baton Rouge this Friday-Sunday in the friendly confines of Jack Turner Stadium. LSU enters Athens after convincingly sweeping Alabama at Tiger Stadium. The Tigers have improved their record greatly in comparison to this time time last year and are sporting an impressive 40-11 (15-6 SEC) tally. Not only has the entire LSU squad improved in part because of some stellar rookie players, but also because of the veteran ace in the circle, Rachele Fico. Fico will enter Athens as the reigning NFCA National Player of the Week after notching two wins against a very quality Alabama Crimson Tide team.
At the beginning of the season, many people doubted what exactly LSU would be capable of in the SEC with such a young squad and virtually no pitching depth behind Fico. The Tigers have made a lot of people eat crow as they have shown that they not only have a great number-two pitcher behind Fico (Ashley Czechner; 10-0, 2.37 ERA), but that their offense is capable of outscoring many quality opponents. The Tigers have many impressive wins on their resumé in 2013, Michigan, Alabama, Missouri, Arkansas, and Kentucky to name just a few. Currently, the No. 7 Tigers are sitting atop the SEC West Standings and are looking to capture the SEC with a big sweep over our Bulldogs. Last year, Rachele Fico and Erin Arevalo opened up the series in Baton Rough with a 15-inning thriller that I will never forget. Georgia ended up claiming the victory in the 15th inning when Niaja Griffin scored on a misplayed ball at first base off the bat of then-rookie, Niaja Griffin. Georgia claimed the second game, and the series, in 6-1 fashion before falling by a 1-0 margin in the series finale. Beth Torina, Rachele Fico, and the rest of this feisty LSU Tigers team enter Athens with a chip on their shoulder after dropping the series to the Bulldogs in Baton Rouge in 2012. It goes without saying that they will be looking to repay the favor by winning the series against No. 24 Georgia in Athens.
This weekend home series is special for several reasons, most notably because of Georgia bidding farewell to their three Senior players: Tess Sito, Christine Olney, and Maya Branch. At Saturday’s pre-game Senior Day Ceremony, Georgia fans will say goodbye to the three Dawg Seniors. Georgia parents, coaches, and fans, myself included, have loved having the opportunity to watch these three talented young ladies don the Red and Black uniform. Each senior athlete on this year’s team has brought something unique to the team and it has really helped guide the team to some key wins.
Georgia’s three seniors–Maya Branch, Christine Olney, & Tess Sito–pose for the camera before playing against Florida. (Courtesy UGA’s Brother Photography)
You cannot say enough about the persistence of Maya Branch, who after leaving the team a couple of years ago, decided to return and finish her career as a Georgia Bulldog. Maya has great speed on the bases and has played a great right field when called upon to do so. Although it seems as if Tess Sito just arrived in Athens yesterday, Bulldog fans will watch Tess Sito play her last game in Jack Turner Stadium on Sunday against LSU. In 2012, Sito was an integral part of Georgia’s success in the circle and at the plate. In 2013, she has played a stud second base and has been tremendous at the plate as well. I am excited to follow Tess Sito as she ventures into the NPF Pro League next year to play with former Bulldogs Brianna Hesson and Erin Arevalo on the Akron Racers. Christine Olney, the only 4-year Georgia Bulldog player on this year’s team, has been such a fun, high-energy player to watch over the past four seasons. She has played well at whatever position she has been placed at–second base, left field, first base, and right field to name a few. Not only has she played great defense and been a team leader in 2013, but her bat has came alive as she had had a career year at the plate. She has not only continued to bat for average, but she has been extremely clutch and has driven in game-tying and game-winning runs on several occasions. It goes without saying that these players will be missed in Athens, but they are all destined to do great things in the future! ConGRADulations Tess, Maya, and Christine!!!
This weekend will also be an important one because Sunday marks the annual Pink Game for the Georgia Softball team. Georgia will wear a set of hot pink Jerseys in the Sunday contest against LSU as part of their annual Strike Out Cancer weekend. After Game 3 is complete, the team will host a Silent Jersey Auction that will benefit breast cancer research. The first 300 fans to Game 3 will receive free pink and black UGA arm sleeves, although all fans will receive free pink UGA shakers. At Sunday’s contest, UGA Softball Pink Tees will be available with a minimum donation of five dollars. Of course, all contributions will go to benefit breast cancer research. This is such a great event and there is something so fun about watching these tough girls play in the bubblegum-pink uniforms! Go Pink Dawgs! 😀
Although the primary success that LSU has been experiencing in 2013 has been centered around stellar pitching from Rachele Fico, the Bayou Bengals have also flexed their muscles at the plate this season. The Tigers are led at the plate by the slapper duo of Jacee Blades and A.J. Andrews. Blades (.366, 21 RBI) and Andrews (.354, 29 RBI) have found ways to get on base all season long and are an absolute nightmare on opposing defenses because of their above average speed out of the box. LSU has gotten their supply of power at the plate from their breakout rookie shortstop, Bianka Bell. If the last name sounds familiar, that is because it should. Bianka’s older sister, Brittany Bell, is a senior slugger for the Mississippi State Bulldogs. Bianka Bell is currently batting a .340 clip with 11 home runs and 45 runs driven in. Without a doubt, this young athlete is going to be a phenomenal player to watch over the next four seasons for the Tigers. Although offense has been somewhat anemic in past seasons for LSU, Beth Torina seems to have placed an equal focus on offense and defense for this club. The bats have improved and when they are on, they are tough to beat with Rachele Fico in the circle.
LSU’s Bianka Bell makes contact with the ball in a 2013 contest at Tiger Park in Baton Rouge. (Courtesy LSUsports.net)
As mentioned previously, Rachele Fico has been at the core of LSU’s success in 2013. In 2012, Fico was able to combine with Brittany Mack to get the Bayou Bengals back to the Oklahoma City for the first time in a very long time. In 2013, Rachele Fico has exceeded expectations and shown that she has been able to be the workhorse for the up and coming LSU Tigers. On the season, Fico has compiled a 24-9 record to go along with a 1.98 ERA, all while striking out 212 batters in 201.1 innings pitched. Fico was good as a freshman, but has steadily improved each and every season. Slowly but surely, Fico has developed into of the premiere pitchers in the country and will be an excellent test for the Bulldog offense right before the post season begins. What makes Rachele Fico so good is that she possesses near pinpoint ball location skills. She paints the corners in all parts of the zone very well, although when she does not get an umpire behind the plate that calls the corners, she can tend to issue a lot of free passes. The key to hitting the ball hard against Fico is as simple as picking out the closest pitch she throws to the strike zone and putting a good swing on it. Fico, like many other good pitchers, relies on batters to chase her up-and-out pitches, in turn striking out many batters on pitches that are never going to be called strikes. As the Bulldogs learned against Hannah Rogers in Gainesville this past weekend, you have to be patient at the plate and make the pitcher throw pitches near the plate in order to get solid hits and base runners.
Although Fico has been the predominant workhorse in the circle for the Tigers, Beth Torina has also turned to JUCO transfer, Ashley Czechner, and Meghan Patterson for some contests. In terms of likelihood for this weekend, I say that we will see Fico in Games 1 and 3, and we will get a full game of Czechner on Saturday. Patterson has been primarily used against some of the lighter parts of LSU’s schedule and is carrying a 6-2 record to go along with a 1.62 earned run average. Czechner has pitched the second highest amount of innings in 2013 for the Tigers and has truly excelled in SEC league play. Czechner has compiled a spotless 10-0 record to go with a 2.37 ERA. Not particularly a pitcher that relies on the strikeout, Czechner has only fanned 59 batters in 79.2 innings pitched. Czechner brings a completely different approach than does Rachele Fico. Czechner throws a good bit slower, relies predominantly on off-speed and spin pitches, but has been effective all year at inducing weak pop ups and lazy fly balls. It is very possible that we could get some hard hits against Rachele Fico, but be completely baffled by Czechner if we do not study some film on her. In some ways, Czechner is similar to Ainsley from Texas A&M, although Czechner spins and locates the ball with much greater precision.
This year’s edition of Georgia Softball has been a roller coaster ride to remember for sure! There have been times when I felt like I wanted to pull all of my hair out, although there have been times when I find myself screaming and cheering at the top of my lungs in Athens and elsewhere as the Dawgs have hit their share of bombs, beaten some quality opponents, and made some memories to last a lifetime! The year started off with high expectations, and although things were not always smooth sailing, this year’s team has gotten better each and every time they have taken the field. Now, as the curtain closes on the 2013 Regular Season, Georgia seems to be peaking at the right time on the back of some stellar pitching and timely hitting. Although Games 2 and 3 against Florida could have went better, I think it says a lot that we played three close games after having such a hard time earlier in the year against some unranked foes. This is the most a single Georgia team has improved in a single season in as long as I can remember, and to think that this is only a glimpse of the bright future of Georgia Softball.
Rachele Fico delivers a pitch in a 2013 SEC contest. (Courtesy LSU Athletics)
I am proud to be a Georgia fan and do not think I could find a more exciting group of young student athletes. Momentum is building for the Bulldogs as the SEC Tournament and post season nears, and while the girls are still going to face their fair share of tough obstacles before the season is over, the Georgia nation is committed and believes in this team! If we can take the series from LSU here in Athens, then I think the possibilities are endless for Georgia as the post season begins. It will all depend on who we draw, but with the rigorous SEC schedule that Georgia played in the regular season, there is no way that the girls are not prepared for any team that crosses their path for the remainder of the season.
Although people say first impressions are everything, I have never been a big fan of that statement. Georgia has shown that they are constantly getting better and battling against some quality opponents for a full seven innings. It is not about how you start, but rather, it is all about how you finish. The goal of this season is to play harder than ever before and to win the last game of the season. Getting hot at the right time can be integral to this Georgia program returning to Super Regionals, and, if everything falls into place, Oklahoma City. Finish the drill, Bulldogs!
As always, Go Dawgs!
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