The seniors graduating from the Georgia Gwinnett College softball program won 192 games over the last four years, brought the Grizzlies their first No. 1 national ranking and made back-to-back World Series trips.
“I don’t have to add to the story to make it sound incredible,” head coach Kay Ihlenburg said.
Four of the six came in as freshmen, to a program that was just three years old.
“It’s incredible that they came into a program that had a losing season, a winning season with no postseason history and one crack at an opening round,” Ihlenburg said. “That’s it. They were just so consistent. If you look at the number of games started by Aubree Cox, Elyssa Melton, Taylor Hansis and Courtney McKenzie, four four-year players, they truly were backbones to the program.”
Hansis, who is already back in class at dental school, was the three-time conference pitcher of the year. Cox, Melton, Tori Robinson and Crystal Busbee were all among the Grizzlies top seven hitters this season. Robinson’s clutch plate performance led GGC to the semifinals of the World Series.
“The perspective, that the World Series was your last wear-the-uniform moment, but there is so much more to being a part of something as unique as what we have created,” Ihlenburg said. “They all, one through six, embodied it.”
The Grizzlies won three games in the World Series, but couldn’t beat University of Science & Arts (Okla.) and finished with a 45-16 record. They returned from Springfield, Mo., after the deepest playoff run in program history and it began to sink in for Ihlenburg.
“I didn’t realize how hard it would be to say goodbye to them,” she said, her voice breaking. “Because — I can’t get through the line without choking up — it wasn’t just about the softball. It’s something that’s taken me quite a few days to really realize, that it was more than just bats and balls, dirt and grass.”
GGC opened its second straight World Series appearance with a win over Vanguard, a team the Grizzlies traveled to California during the regular season to play. Hansis was spectacular in a pitching dual and Robinson homered for the 2-1 win.
“When Tori came through and hit her home run, it was one of those moments — she was just so locked-in that at-bat — and you could just tell,” Ihlenburg said. “I just really felt like we played a complete game.”
It earned GGC a date with top-ranked Science & Arts.
“Because of the talent that team has, there are certain hitters you had to avoid,” Ihlenburg said. “Those players came through for their team. I was proud of the fact that we came out and scored first. We did the things we needed to, it’s just in the moment, we didn’t get the big hit and they did.
“One of the crazier parts to that game was the wind was blowing dead-center in. It was a stiff-flag gale. The two hits they got were just the funkiest hits because they got hit to right and just tailed away.”
The Grizzlies rebounded from the 4-1 loss with a 5-1 extra-inning victory over Oregon Tech.
“I knew from a coaching standpoint that they were going to have a target on our back because we prevented their World Series bid in 2018,” Ihlenburg said.
The game was scoreless through five innings. GGC eked out a run in the top of the sixth and Oregon Tech answered immediately to tie it 1-1.
“It was a play that we just didn’t execute the catch and tag (at home),” Ihlenburg said. “You get into the pressure situation where we’re the visitors, having to score and then hold them.”
In the top of the eighth, the Grizzlies had the bases loaded with two out and Robinson at the plate.
“She just laces one down the line,” Ihlenburg said. “In a game of inches, it literally hit two inches from the foul line. I’ve been on the opposite side of that.”
Robinson’s triple cleared the bases and she was brought home by sophomore Piper Wagner.
GGC ended the game on an unassisted 5-3 double play and had a day to refocus for an elimination game against red-hot Marian University, which had lost just one game coming into the World Series.
“Knowing they were a very confident team, Taylor pitched probably the best game I’d seen her pitch in the postseason,” Ihlenburg said. “She just got ground ball after ground ball, pop-outs, a couple of strikeouts, but just really let the defense work.”
The Grizzlies grabbed a 1-0 lead in the first inning and made it stand up.
“It was a fluke play,” Ihlenburg said. “Again, the wind really played a factor. Their right fielder made a catch and she just sails it. The wind gets behind it and it went into the dugout.”
The 1-0 win — a school record 28th of the year for Hansis — set up a rematch with Science & Arts, the team that knocked GGC out in last year’s Series.
“Unfortunately it was really just that they got the couple of hits that we didn’t get,” Ihlenburg said. “We had runners on. We moved runners. But when they got their six runs in the fourth, it was a couple of infield hits where the ball rolled their way and a couple of plays where we didn’t secure an out. It wasn’t an error, it’s just we didn’t get an out and they pushed a couple of runs across.
“In total, to finish fourth is exceeding all expectations just given that this team had to battle so many times with tough losses in April and playing the type of schedule we played.”
Back-to-back trips to the final postseason site, along with key mid-season trips to Florida and California, are invaluable experiences for the players who are returning.
“We do have returning anchors to this program, despite losing other anchors,” Ihlenburg said.
They’re ready to take the next step.
“Ultimately we want to see what the top of the mountain feels like,” Ihlenburg said.