May 27, 2013
By Jon Cooper
Georgia Tech got some good news from the NCAA Selection Committee on Monday afternoon.
They don’t have to beat the overall No. 1 team in the country on its home field to advance to Super Regionals as they did last year, when they traveled to Gainesville, Fla. to face the University of Florida.
This year Tech got a relative break as they’ll only have to advance by beating the No. 2 team in the country, Vanderbilt, on its home field. Rounding out the Nashville Regional are Illinois and East Tennessee State.
The road to Omaha, the Yellow Jackets’ 29th appearance in school history and 18th under Head Coach Danny Hall, begins on Friday at 2 p.m. ET (1 p.m. local time) at Hawkins Field, when Tech faces Illinois. The Jackets are seeking their first appearance in the College World Series since 2006, coincidentally the last time they faced Vanderbilt.
“I would say, No. 1, I think Vanderbilt has a tremendous team and has great pitching,” said Hall. “Illinois, I don’t know a lot about them but they had a real good RPI so they’ve obviously played a good schedule and we’re going to have to be ready to go to play them. East Tennessee State won the Atlantic Sun. They must be a hot team right now because I know that Mercer won the league [in the regular season] and Mercer’s a real good team. So it’s going to be four really good teams and certainly something that we look forward to.”
Three of the four teams, Vanderbilt, Georgia Tech and Illinois ranked in the top 40 in RPI (Vandy, No. 1, Georgia Tech, No. 21, and Illinois, No. 40). ETSU, which won the Atlantic Sun tournament, finished at 103 but all three potential opponents have the Jackets’ attention and their respect.
“Any team in it at this point is going to be really good,” said catcher Zane Evans. “We’ve got to go out there and give it our all every game.”
While much of the attention is obviously on the host, The Jackets know that unless they take care of business on Friday in their opener against Illinois they aren’t guaranteed to even see Vanderbilt.
Led by Big Ten Player of the Year, center fielder Justin Parr and his twin brother, Jordan, the Illini went 34-18 during the season, and will be making their 11th NCAA Tournament appearance and first since 2011. They’re one of two Big Ten schools to make the field. Indiana, the Big Ten Tournament Champion is the other. Ohio State, which Tech played to a draw in a two-game set in Columbus during the season and which finished 35-23, was left out.
There isn’t a lot of history to go on. The Yellow Jackets and Fighin’ Illini have never met in NCAA Tournament play and have only played four times in history despite the two teams having been playing baseball a combined 252 years (Tech started in 1895, Illinois began in 1879). For the record, Tech is 3-1, with the last games played on April 18 and 19, 1930.
“We’re going to have to do some work to just kind of see what they’re all about,” said Hall. “We can get some film off the Big Ten Network so we’ll at least get a look visually then we’ll try to get some scouting reports. At the end of the day you’ve got to go play. Our pitchers have to execute pitches, we’ve got to execute on offense and we’ve got to play good defense.”
Should the Jackets top Illinois, they’ll advance in the winner’s bracket and take on either Vanderbilt or East Tennessee State, at 8 p.m. ET (7 p.m. local time) Saturday. Should they lose, they’d take on the Vandy-ETSU loser at 3 p.m. ET Sunday.
The Commodores, one of nine SEC teams selected for the tournament, come in as the SEC regular season champion, going 51-9, 26-3 in conference play, winning the SEC East by nine games. In the SEC Tournament, they shook off an opening-round upset by Texas A&M, beating South Carolina in 10, avenging the loss to the Aggies, then walloping Mississippi State before falling in 11 to LSU in the championship game.
“We’ve seen good arms but I will say this. Vanderbilt has got Major League talent on their pitching staff,” said Hall. “At the end of the day, pitching usually off-sets hitting and so we’re going to have to pitch it well, provided we get a chance to play them. Our focus right now has just got to be on playing Illinois and trying to beat them and see who we get to play in the second game.”
Vandy also can hit, boasting the SEC’s top-rated offense, led by second baseman Tony Kemp, who led the league in hitting and outfielders Connor Harrell and Mike Yastrzemski (Hall of Famer Carl’s grandson).
Georgia Tech leads the series with Vandy 58-35-1 and won the only two meetings in NCAA Tournament history, beating the Commodores twice in the 2006 Atlanta Regional, including besting current Tampa Bay Rays ace David Price in the first meeting.
Rounding out the region is East Tennessee State.
While ETSU’s RPI is 103, they’re on a roll, coming into the Nashville Regional as the only conference tournament champion. The Buccaneers have won their last seven games, including taking care of Atlantic Sun regular season champion Mercer in 11 innings in the tournament on their way to taking the crown and earning the automatic bid. The Bucs feature A-Sun Pitcher of the Year Kerry Doane, who allowed three earned runs in 18 innings in the conference tournament, including throwing a complete-game four-hitter over Kennesaw State.
ETSU’s head coach is Tony Skole, the uncle of former Yellow Jacket Matt Skole. The Jackets are 23-1 all-time against the Bucs, but the last meeting was their lone loss, 8-6, on March 17, 2011 at Russ Chandler Stadium.
Hawkins Field is an artificial turf field, but that’s not something that the Jackets believe will be a factor. The team prepared for the artificial surface by taking grounders Monday at the Brock Football building and will do so again on Tuesday.
“We’ve played on a couple of turf fields already this year,” said third baseman Sam Dove, who grew up in nearby Brentwood and played summer ball on Hawkins Field a couple of years ago — albeit before the renovations which included installing the turf surface. “So it won’t be anything new for us. We’re just excited to get going.”
Opponents won’t be sure how to prepare for Tech, however, as Hall hasn’t decided upon his rotation.
He admitted he is open to moving ace Buck Farmer back a day, but regardless of who throws which day, he believes the rotation will be a strength for Tech.
“I feel really good about it,” Hall said. “I think Jonathan King gave us a big boost there against Virginia Tech, which is a really good hitting team and a hot team. I thought Dusty [Isaacs] pitched well. He just made two or three bad pitches and they hit home runs off him. I thought Buck threw the ball well and Buck has gotten a lot of rest between throwing last Wednesday and his next start.
“I feel like our pitching has progressed,” he added. “Now it just comes down you’ve got to get hot for one weekend. I’d like to go on a five-game winning streak. If we can win five in a row we’re going to Omaha. Certainly, that’s the goal with the way the rotation has thrown.”