ATHENS — Georgia Tech and Georgia keep bumping into each other on the college baseball diamond.
The two state rivals are headlining the NCAA’s Athens regional, which starts today. No. 8 seed Georgia (35-21-1) opens against Atlantic Sun Tournament winner Lipscomb (32-28) in the opener of the double-elimination tournament, while Georgia Tech (39-19) takes on Big East champion Louisville (41-19) in the nightcap.
Both Georgia and Georgia Tech advanced to the College World Series in 2006, but most years when they’ve made dual appearances, they have met in either the regionals or the super regionals.
The Yellow Jackets eliminated Georgia in the 2002 regional at Atlanta, but the Bulldogs won the 1987 regional and 2004 super regional at Georgia Tech, which also lost in the 2001 regionals in Athens.
Georgia has hosted five regionals or super regionals since 2001 — and won every one of them.
"That history is a good thing to have on your side," Georgia coach David Perno said. "But by the same token, this time of the year you still have to go out on the field and do it."
Georgia limps into the regionals, losers of four of its last five games. After the Bulldogs clinched the Southeastern Conference regular season title on the next-to-last weekend of the season, Georgia lost two of three in Athens to Alabama and went two and out in the SEC tournament.
"Last week was a blessing in disguise," said Georgia first baseman Rich Poythress. "It showed us that we have to show up and play."
Poythress did not play in the SEC tournament after spraining his wrist in the final series against Alabama. He was one of four front-line players hurt late in the season.
Second baseman Michael Demperio was lost for the season with a knee injury against Mississippi on May 4. Center fielder Matt Cerone missed one game at the SECs after sustaining a concussion when he crashed into the wall making a sensational catch. Staff ace Trevor Holder has not pitched in a game since May 16, when he was removed in the second inning against Alabama.
All but Demperio will play in the regionals. "Physically, we are healthy and ready to go," Perno said.
Still, while Holder has been throwing on the side for the last two weeks and pitched some simulated live action early in the week, Stephen Dodson will start against Lipscomb.
Two constants for the Bulldogs this year have been junior shortstop Gordon Beckham and senior closer Joshua Fields, the SEC’s player and pitcher of the year.
Beckham tied the school record with 23 homers, set a new mark with 78 runs and is hitting .394. He is a three-year starter, but hit .291 with 25 homers his first two years.
"I learned what it takes to be successful in baseball," Beckham said. "Baseball is a tough game, and I learned how to fail. If you fail seven out of 10 times, you are still considered good."
Fields holds the SEC career saves record with 39, and he was 16-for-16 in save opportunities this year. None of 13 inherited runners scored off him this year. Fields had similar numbers in 2006, but he blew six saves as a junior.
A pair of Ohio natives played key roles in Georgia Tech making it through a difficult season.
The Jackets were 26-7 after beating Georgia on April 9. Three days later, pitcher Michael Hutts was found dead in his dorm room.
"We went through a major grieving period where baseball was very secondary," Georgia Tech coach Danny Hall said.
Freshman shortstop Derek Dietrich of Parma, Ohio, drove in a team-high 66 runs, hit 14 homers and batted .333. The staff ace was junior lefty David Duncan of New Richmond, Ohio, one of the team’s two 6-foot-8 starters.
"David is a heck of a competitor," Dietrich said.
The two didn’t know each before coming to Georgia Tech; in fact, Dietrich didn’t even know where New Richmond was. But the two both pull for Ohio State’s football team and the Cleveland Browns — and they both learned to dislike Georgia.
"It didn’t take long," Dietrich said, "although I have had a lot of people tell me, ‘Wait until you leave. You’ll hate them even more.’"
Hall knows the two state schools will take center stage at the Regional, but he’s taking no one for granted.
"If it was not for LSU, everybody would be talking about Louisville," Hall said. "And Lipscomb may be a team that nobody knows anything about, but if they won the A-Sun, that tells me they have a good team."
While LSU finished the year with a 20-game winning streak, Louisville won 25 of its last 31 games.
The Cardinals are led by Big East co-player of the year Chris Dominguez. The third baseman hit .369 with 20 homers and 74 RBI.
Catcher Caleb Joseph was tournament MVP for Lipscomb, capping a season when he batted .356 with 16 homers and 59 RBI.