MARTINEZ, Ga. – The Peach Belt Conference (PBC) recently released its top-20 games in league history, with Georgia College & State University softball’s 2003 win over Armstrong Atlantic State University in the NCAA South Atlantic Tournament topping the list.
Over the last five months, we’ve counted down the top-20 games in PBC history. Now, we have reached the end and it’s time to unveil what was the overwhelming fans choice as the greatest game ever played.
With more than double the number of votes of any other game on the list, the 2003 NCAA Softball regional final between Armstrong Atlantic State and Georgia College & State University is the runaway winner at #1. Georgia College won the game 1-0 in 13 innings to advance to their first World Series.
2003 was unbelievably good year for PBC softball. Four conference teams finished with 40 or more wins (North Florida, GCSU, AASU, CSU). Two teams finished the year with only nine losses (GCSU and FMU). Even the team that finished 10th in the PBC standings won 31 games.
Heading into the season, most of the focus was on the big three of North Florida, Kennesaw State and Armstrong Atlantic State, but that changed quickly as GCSU came out of the gate on fire, winning 26 games in a row to start the season and rocketing up the national poll until reaching #2 in the nation. Then…they went to Armstrong Atlantic State. GCSU was 26-0 when they went to Savannah and 26-2 when they came home, losing a pair of 1-0 games to the Pirates. AASU All-America pitcher Katya Eronina allowed the Lady Bobcats only five hits combined in the two games.
Georgia College finished second in the standings with four conference losses that season and dropped games to Kennesaw State and North Florida in the 2003 PBC Tournament. Still ranked in the top 10 nationally, the Bobcats made their first NCAA Tournament appearance as the No. 2 seed in the Southeast Regional, which was hosted by North Florida.
Armstrong Atlantic State finished in a tie for fifth in the PBC and struggled against the elite teams in the league following their sweep of Georgia College. After getting bounced by Kennesaw in the PBC Tournament, the Pirates lost their first game in the NCAA regional to Longwood 1-0. But, riding the arm of Eronina, AASU turned the corner and beat Wingate, Columbus State and host North Florida to reach the championship game. But, heading into the showdown with Georgia College, the Pirates had a problem: Eronina was done.
After pitching 31 innings in a three-game stretch, including a 10-inning win over Wingate and a 2-0 win over North Florida in the game immediately preceding the championship, the PBC Pitcher of the Year had a dead shoulder and could not go, so the Pirates had to turn to No. 2: Australian Delaney Warrian. Many AASU fans might have been dismayed at the thought of playing their biggest game without their No. 1 pitcher, but Warrian rose to the challenge and pitched all 13 innings of the final.
“Katya had started the whole tournament and pitched every inning until the GCSU game,” recalls Marty McDaniel, head coach of Armstrong Atlantic State in 2003 and now an assistant at the University of Tennessee. “She came to me and said ‘I don’t have anything left.’ But I felt good going in with Delaney (Warrian), she threw a one-hitter against GCSU a few weeks before and presented a problem for them. I knew she was a senior, I knew she could handle the pressure.”
GCSU countered with all-conference pitcher Jennifer Joiner, who was in the midst of blazing a smoking trail of ruin through the NCAA regional. With her 13-inning shutout of AASU in the final, the California native pitched 26 consecutive scoreless innings as Georgia College shut out every opponent they faced.
“She was tired, but there was never a moment when she showed any weakness, to any of us,” said Bobcat catcher Heather Jones, now an assistant coach at Lander. “We didn’t know about Eronina being tired and thought Marty was trying to back-door us.”
“It had to have been 120 on the field,” said then-GCSU head coach Windy Thees, now head coach at the University of Memphis. “We both had great pitchers on the mound and good hitters; it was like playing ourselves, it was such an intense game. Marty and I coach the same way, we have the same methodology, the same approach to pitching and we each knew what the other was going to do.”
The game itself was a nail-biter from start to finish. The Pirate fan-base let out a collective sigh of relief as Warrian set down eight of the first nine Bobcats she faced, including six in a row in the second and third. It quickly became apparent that the first team to blink would most likely lose, so each pitch held the potential of a trip to the World Series.
“You learn from games whether you win or lose and I’ve learned a lot,” said McDaniel. “If I get another game like that, I’m going to squeeze to push a run across.”
In the sixth, Georgia College’s Joni Frei smacked what appeared to be a sure double to right center, only to see Jocelyn Lavendar make a highlight-worthy diving catch to keep the bases empty.
Georgia College got that double to drop in the seventh as Heather Jones sent one to the wall with two out. But Warrian stood tough and got Mandi Jones to ground out to second to end the inning and send the game to extras.
“Both teams were so determined,” said Thees. “We never got frustrated or down, we knew we would score the next inning; then, don’t worry, we’ll do it the next inning. Jenn (Joiner) told the team ‘don’t worry, they won’t score on me’ but she was begging, pleading and threatening them to score a run. It was very intense.”
AASU also had their opportunities, thanks in large part to Georgia College defensive miscues. The Bobcats made four errors in the game, including one in the eighth that left Pirates on first and second with one out. But Joiner got Carrie Thompson to pop up to second and Jenny Alfirov on a strikeout to end the threat.
“That had been our thing: if you make a mistake, shake it off, someone’s going to be there to pick you up,” said Jones. “Jenn would look at you and say ‘it’s ok, I got you. We wouldn’t think about the errors, we would look forward instead of backwards.”
Georgia College answered in the bottom of the ninth as Kristin Hughes led off the inning by getting plunked by a Warrian pitch and then moving to second on a sac bunt. With runners at first and second with one out, Jones ripped a single up the middle. AASU center fielder Lindsay Phillips scooped up the ball and gunned down Hughes at home plate to keep the game scoreless.
AASU had a runner at second with nobody out in the top of the 10th only to have Joiner retire three straight. Warrian got a strikeout with a runner in scoring position to end the bottom of the 10th.
Another Bobcat error gave AASU runners at first and second with one out in the 11th. Amanda Kort took the first pitch she saw and hit it as hard as any ball was hit that day. Unfortunately, she hit it right back at Joiner, who gloved it and then took out the runner at first for a double play.
“Its probably one of the longest games I’ve ever played,” said Jones, a freshman on the 2003 team. “The momentum back and forth – we’d make some great defensive play, then go three up and three down, then it would kind of shift back.”
As the game crossed the three-hour mark, both pitchers were visibly tiring. When the end came, it came suddenly. After AASU stranded their 15th base runner in the top of the 13th, Joni Frei led off the bottom of the 13th with a double down the left field line. Aundrea Baker then stepped to the plate and ended the game with a simple single up the middle.
“We knew Aundrea was fast and could drive to the gap,” said Thees. “They pulled their outfield in and she hit it past them. It was scored as a single because the run scored, but the ball was kind of up and she drove it past them. I remember seeing the ball go and didn’t believe it until it hit the grass. Joni was running home and I was jumping up and down all the way to home with them.”
Georgia College went on to the World Series in Salem, Ore., where they reached the national championship game before falling to UC Davis. Joiner and Hughes were named All-Americans following the season.
“I think about it all the time,” said McDaniel. “GCSU did an excellent job and I commend Windy on that game and the national championship. That year I felt that if we could have got to the world series with our pitching and offense, we could have won a national title.”
“I talk about it all the time,” said Jones. “I try to tell my girls what happened and how we got there. They like to hear the stories. It helps them because they know that I’ve been there, in a championship game. Not everybody got along off the field. But when we stepped on that field, it was a completely different story. If you can come together and put whatever you have towards a person aside, you will be successful. 2003 was complete proof of that.”
“It’s rare for a team to stay close years later, but that team has stayed together and kept in contact,” said Thees. “That group was such a special group, they go back to Milledgeville every year and have a team dinner. It gets harder to do with jobs and families and children, but they made that kind of commitment to one another, and it’s still there to this day.”
And, just as quickly as that game ended, the PBC 20 in 20 celebration is over! The conference would like to thank the hundreds of fans who nominated and voted for games. Also, special thanks to the selection committee who whittled down the 83 games nominated to 35 that were voted on by the general public. On the committee were Randy Warrick (USCA), Jeff May (Lander), Michael Hawkins (FMU), Mike Peacock (CSU), Chad Jackson (AASU), John Zubal (Clayton St.) and Paul Higgs (GCSU).
Special thanks to the league SIDs for providing archived photographs and other information and to all players and coaches who were interviewed for this and all 20 stories.
The GCSU Department of Athletics, back-to-back winners of the PBC Commissioner's Cup, sponsors 10 varsity athletic programs at the NCAA Division II level. As a Division II program, Georgia College prides itself on balancing the life of the student-athlete, evidenced by the Bobcats' multiple appearances in post-season competition as well as documented academic success and community-service involvement. Sign up at Twitter.com username GCSUSID for up-to-the-minute reports, and visit www.GCSUBobcats.com to nominate your favorite former Bobcats and Colonials to the GCSU Athletics Hall of Fame.