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Season In Review: End Of An Era

Despite a solid year and 38 wins, Georgia Tech is left out of the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1984.

Despite a top-25 ranking in the NCAA’s ratings percentage index, 38 overall wins and a strong finish to the regular season, Georgia Tech did not receive a bid to the NCAA baseball tournament in 1999, ending an era of 14 consecutive years with a solid track record in college baseball’s championship tournament.

The Yellow Jackets, who finished their season at 38-20, failed to make the tournament for the first time since 1984. It ended what was the nation’s fourth-longest streak of attending the tournament at 14 years in a season when the field was expanded from 48 to 64 teams.

“I’m disappointed that our players are not going to get to play in the NCAA Tournament, and I’m extremely disappointed for our seniors,” said a stunned head coach Danny Hall when the regional pairings were announced on May 24. “I felt like they had stepped up their play down the stretch and put us in a good position. I felt the way we played down the stretch put us in the tournament. I thought we proved we were playing well this time of year.

“I also feel very bad for Georgia Tech. A good thing has been broken, and by that I mean our streak of 14 straight years. The person that needs to be held responsible for that is me, and that brings a lot of disappointment.”

Tech had finished the ACC Tournament with the same overall record as last season, when they were made a No. 2 seed at the Midwest Regional in Wichita, Kan., and reached the championship game. The Yellow Jackets finished fifth in the Atlantic Coast Conference regular season race at 12-12, but won six of their last seven regular season games, including two wins in three games at North Carolina, then ranked No. 15 in the nation. Tech then routed the Tar Heels in the opening round of the ACC Tournament, 15-4, before bowing to second-ranked Florida State, 7-3, and N.C. State, 9-6.

“It’s very obvious that the committee looked hard at the strength of the non-conference schedule,” said Hall. “I feel like we played a good non-conference schedule. We played UCLA on the road three times, and we played Auburn and Jacksonville on the road at the beginning of the season with a very young team. A lot of the things they say they base this on, I don’t totally buy into. But as I told our team, when you leave the decision in the hands of the committee, this is the result you get sometimes.

“We are definitely going to have to look at our non-conference schedule, and we’re definitely going to have to play better in the ACC.”

The NCAA baseball committee’s omission put a pall over an otherwise solid season for Tech, highlighted by outstanding performances late in the season by seniors Chuck Crowder, a pitcher from Mantua, Ohio, who posted a 10-5 record and a team-low 3.62 ERA; Stephen Donaghey, a first baseman from Woburn, Mass., who overcame a severe hamstring injury to post career highs in home runs (12) and RBI (53) and batted .333; and Eric McQueen, a catcher from Winder, Ga., who hit a career-best .315 with 11 home runs and 37 RBI. Both Donaghey and McQueen put forth some heroic late-inning performances to help Tech rally in the final two weeks of the regular season.

“Donaghey went through tough times early in the year, and for him to play as well as he did late, that’s what you want to see happen to a senior,” said Hall. “Eric has always been a stabilizing force for us behind the plate. He also had some big home runs for us down the stretch. In my opinion, those two played the best baseball of their careers. They provided leadership and good play at a time when we needed it the most.”

Tech was led offensively all year by a member of its vaunted freshman class, third baseman Mark Teixeira, who topped the Jackets in nearly every category with a .387 average, 13 home runs, 65 RBI, a .640 slugging percentage and a .478 on-base average. He earned national Freshman of the Year honors by Collegiate Baseball magazine, freshman all-America honors by Baseball America and the ACC Rookie of the Year award.

Crowder earned third-team all-America honors by the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association. Crowder and Teixeira were named to the all-ACC first team, Teixeira being the only freshman named. Second-team honors went to McQueen and outfielder Jason Basil, a sophomore from West Chester, Ohio, who was Tech’s second leading hitter at .349 with eight home runs and 56 RBI.

Hall, whose team played better offensively in the tournament and got solid starts from Crowder and sophomore Cory Vance, his top two pitchers, was optimistic about the Jackets’ chances in the tournament, but never got the opportunity.

Both pitchers ranked in the top 10 of the final ACC statistical rankings in wins, innings and strikeouts.

Crowder finished his career as a two-time all-ACC choice and posted a four-year 33-14 record, ranking third at Tech in victories and strikeouts (377) and seventh all-time in the ACC. Vance, a sophomore who won eight of his last nine decisions, finished the year 9-3 with a 4.43 ERA and will likely be the top starter in Tech’s rotation next year.

A succession of minor injuries left the Jackets’ pitching staff at less than 100 percent most of the season, with junior lefty Simon Young’s absence for the last month of the season the biggest blow. Young, who had been one of Tech’s top three starters all season with a 7-4 record and a 4.10 ERA, was sidelined from late April with tendinitis in the middle finger of his pitching hand.

Hall really had no one to replace him, using junior college transfer Ben Sheeter and freshman Steve Kelly in spot starts, both victims of the injury bug themselves at various times during the year. Sheeter finished the year with a 3-2 record, two saves and a 4.43 ERA after missing the first month of the season with elbow tendinitis. Kelly, a fifth-round draft choice out of high school, missed the entire month of February and most of May because of arm problems and an emergency appendectomy.

“The progress of our pitching this season was stunted by all that, there’s no doubt about that,” said Hall. “We never had our pitching staff 100 percent healthy. At the beginning of the year, Ben Sheeter and Steve Kelly were not ready to go. We saw at the mid-point of the season when those guys were effective pitchers for us. Then about the time we got those guys rolling, Simon Young went down.”

Tech’s bullpen, composed almost entirely of first-year players, struggled the entire year, although the Jackets were 37-1 when they entered the ninth inning ahead or tied, and 31-4 when completing the fifth inning ahead or tied. At various times of the year, freshmen Rhett Parrott (3-3, four saves, 7.36), Kevin Cameron (2-1, 1 save, 8.67), Jesse Thompson (1-0, 9.95), Brad Busbin (0-0, 14.18) all showed signs of promise for the future, but were unable to provide a high level of consistency. It was sophomore Andy Mitchell, who pitched very little before late April, who helped Tech surge at the end, posting a 3-1 record and a 4.26 ERA in 11 appearances.

Offensively, Tech finished fifth in the ACC in batting at .313 and averaged 7.5 runs per game, neither among the Jackets’ top figures for a season.

Aside from the senior hitters and Teixeira, Tech received solid performances from sophomores Basil, Brad Stockton (.331-5-26), Matthew Boggs (.316, .468 on-base percentage, team-high 14 stolen bases), Bryan Prince (.311-5-38) and Derik Goffena (.266-4-31), all regular starters in the outfield except Prince, who was Tech’s backup catcher, first baseman and regular designated hitter.

For the last month of the season, three of the four infield positions were manned by freshmen: Teixeira and shortstop Victor Menocal (.195-1-19) beginning the regular season on the left side, and Richard Lewis (.338-1-14) moving to second base in mid-April, replacing Boggs, who moved to center field. Lewis had been a regular in the Tech outfield until the final game of the Wake Forest series on Apr. 18, when he moved to his more natural position. He made just two errors and was involved in 14 double plays over the last 19 games.

“It worked out for the betterment of our team for sure,” said Hall. “It was a move made to stabilize our infield while not knowing what would happen in the outfield. But both guys were outstanding defensively.”

As in the pitching staff, however, Tech’s lineup was handicapped by injuries and other absences throughout the year, including Donaghey’s hamstring injury which sidelined him for 14 games. Prince missed 16 games with a torn meniscus in his left knee, Goffena missed 12 games because of an emergency appendectomy. Tech also lost an offensive catalyst and an excellent defensive outfielder for the last 34 games of the season when freshman Wes Rynders (.378-2-12) became academically ineligible after winter quarter.

The Yellow Jackets dug a hole for themselves with a team-wide slump during the month of April, which started when Tech dropped two of three games at Virginia. The Jackets also lost one of three the following weekend at Duke, lost two of three at home to Wake Forest and to Florida State and were swept at Clemson. Tech hit less than .290 and scored barely five runs a game during the month, leading to an 8-9 record.

This came after a strong March and late February in which Tech went 18-2 at home and won 14 straight games at one point, including a sweep of NCAA participant Rutgers by a total score of 37-10. Tech also went 12-1 against its in-state rivals in 1999, including the first four-game sweep of Georgia Southern since 1994 and three wins in four games with Georgia.

But the way the season ended was a devastating disappointment for a team ranked in the pre-season top 10 of all three major polls and chosen by the ACC coaches to win the conference.

“Our pre-season publicity was based on our recruiting class,” said Hall, who brought in a freshman class ranked as the nation’s best. “At the time, I didn’t think (the national ranking) was justified. Our recruiting class was good, but until you see guys play, you just don’t know how things will go. I felt like we were way over-ranked at the beginning of the year. I don’t really feel like it put pressure on our guys. Everything is settled on the field, and we certainly had our ups and downs, but late in the season, I feel like we played closer to our potential.”

Tech, with a roster that numbered 11 freshmen, 11 sophomores and three juniors in 1999, loses just four seniors from that squad: Crowder, Donaghey, McQueen, and utility player Jason Atha. Tech’s recruiting class was initially regarded as one of the top 10 in the country by some magazines. Six of them were selected in the June major league draft, however, and the Yellow Jackets must wait to see how many of them actually enroll when classes begin in late August.

“I feel good about our program,” said Hall, who has a 253-120 record in six seasons on the Flats and begins next season within reach of 500 career victories as a head coach (461-237 in 12 years). “We played a lot of young people this year, and they’ve gotten a lot of experience. We feel like we have a good recruiting class coming in, so that gives us some encouragement.

“But anytime you’re dealt a blow like we’ve been dealt, you try to evaluate everything in your program, and I will do that. I will make sure this doesn’t happen again.”

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