Past experience is paying off for the Georgia Gwinnett College softball team.
The Grizzlies are making their second straight appearance in the NAIA World Series tournament and they open against a team they played twice this season during a trip to California.
“We’re more relaxed,” head coach Kat Ihlenburg said. “It’s not unknown. We understand the format, we understand the practice schedule and the Champions of Character event.
“We’re going to enjoy the moment, but play the game like every other game.”
GGC (42-14) opens the NAIA tournament with Vanguard at 1 p.m. Thursday in Springfield, Mo. Vanguard (46-11) is back in the double-elimination tournament for the first time since 2006.
The Grizzlies split two games with Vanguard in April, winning 3-2 before running out of gas in a 9-1 loss to wrap up the West Coast road swing.
“When we played them in California, it was the end of our six-game road trip,” Ihlenburg said. “We came out of the gate really well. We had an awesome offensive outbreak and defensively we were spectacular. Then we just couldn’t match their offense in Game 2.”
A win presents a huge challenge with top-ranked and defending national champion the University Science & Arts of Oklahoma (56-2) waiting. Science & Arts handed the Grizzlies their first loss in last year’s World Series.
“I don’t think they carry in anything other than excitement to face teams we already faced,” Ihlenburg said of her players. “There’s an excitement that says we’re ready to play anyone, any time, anywhere.”
GGC’s tandem of senior Taylor Hansis, the conference’s Pitcher of the Year for the third straight season, and sophomore Piper Wagner have one of the best combined ERAs in the country.
Hansis is 24-7 with a 1.75 ERA. The Longs, S.C., native has 180 strikeouts in 184 2/3 innings with nine shutouts this year. Wagner is 10-2 with a 2.82 ERA.
“The energy went through the roof,” Ihlenburg said of the postseason pitching. “There were a lot of win-it-for-the-other-person moments. We knew we were good enough to keep playing.”
The Grizzlies’ top five batters all average over .365, led by RaeQuinn Rosetti’s .424. The junior gets on base more than half the time and has scored a team-leading 54 runs this season.
Senior Aubree Cox was named the Association of independent Institutions’ Player of the Year after posting a .407 batting average, driving in 38 runs and scoring 37 runs this spring.
“The bottom of the lineup, 7-8-9, came through in the final game of the opening round,” Ihlenburg said.
Freshman Sydney Pelaez lined a RBI double to the left-center field gap that brought home Wagner in the sixth inning with the eventual game-winning run. Sophomore Holly Janco added an insurance run with an infield single.
“Our mentality throughout the whole thing has been everyone is a quality hitter,” Ihlenburg said. “We just have to play our best defense and get timely hitting because ‘left on base’ is a season-killer.”