HOOVER, Ala.—It's hard not to root for Georgia, a team that has had two players confined to wheelchairs by horrific accidents in the last two years.
But as Bulldogs coach David Perno pointed out after his team was blown out by Vanderbilt on Wednesday, rooting for a team is not the same as respecting a team.
And earning respect is not the same as earning a spot in the NCAA tournament.
The Bulldogs already proved that they were a team worthy of our respect by the way they responded to outfielder Johnathan Taylor's injury, suffered in an outfield collision with Zach Cone on March 6. They proved it again this week in the Southeastern Conference tournament, rebounding from the Vanderbilt debacle by winning two straight elimination games against Auburn and South Carolina.
On Saturday, Georgia went one step further, essentially clinching a spot in regionals with an emotional 4-3 win against Florida. Georgia improved to 31-29 on the season and ensured it will finish with a winning overall record, a requirement to get an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. Georgia's robust ranking in the Ratings Percentage Index (No. 16), winning record in Southeastern Conference play (16-14 in the regular season) and bevy of quality wins will almost certainly earn it an at-large bid on Monday, assuming the Bulldogs don't ride their piecemeal pitching all the way to the automatic bid (which seems unlikely).
"They deserve to play," Perno said after the win. "We've done enough."
And Taylor was on hand Saturday to provide his teammates with inspiration, and participate in the postgame celebration, which took place on the pitcher's mound after Nolan Fontana lined into a game-ending double play, and around the wheelchairs of Taylor and Chance Veazey in front of the Georgia dugout moments later.
Before the game started, the video board at Regions Park played a recent ESPN piece about Taylor's injury and inspiring rehabilitation efforts, causing Florida players to come over and salute the injured Bulldog.
"When they played that, that piece at the beginning," Perno said, his voice quavering and his head dropping, "it was tough.
"(Taylor's visit was) just huge. He came to one other game, at Turner Field against Georgia Tech, and we got the same type of result in a big game . . . But probably the last two nights, probably two of the biggest wins for our program."
On Wednesday, Perno said he didn't want the Bulldogs to be "the sympathy team."
"I was disappointed Wednesday night," he said Saturday. "I was really upset with them, and they knew it. I was like, 'That was not us. We haven't played like that in three months. And before we leave here, we want respect.' "
They have it, and plenty more.
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