Schnake brings energy to Georgia wins
OKLAHOMA CITY -- Poised in a perfect surfer's pose on the infield at Hall of Fame Stadium, Georgia shortstop Kristin Schnake waited and bobbed up and down as "Wipeout" played on the sound system. As the drum beat hit her cue, she hopped into the air, turned 180 degrees and kept riding her imaginary wave as she pointed in toward catcher Kristyn Sandberg.
This wasn't a celebration in the moments after victory; the Women's College World Series game at hand wasn't over. Schnake's season, and with it the senior's college career, still hung on nothing more substantial than a three-run lead in the middle innings of a game against a Michigan team with more than enough offensive firepower to erase that sort of deficit in short order.
But as she waited for the inning to start, Schnake couldn't help herself, just as she can't stop herself from skipping toward the circle after almost every pitch or throwing her arms out in mock dismay when an umpire doesn't give her pitcher a call on the corner.
Maybe it should be a surprise that a team composed almost entirely of freshmen and sophomores seemed to be in its element Saturday. Then again, with elder stateswomen who play like kids binging on pixie sticks, dancing in the face of danger is contagious.
"We fight; that's what we do," Schnake said. "We compete and we fight, and that's what Coach coaches all day long. Every day at practice, she tells us just to compete. If we compete, good things will happen. If we work hard, good things will happen. And it showed tonight."
Under a constant threat of elimination in a pair of Saturday games at the World Series, not to mention the recurring threat of prosecution for illegal pitches, Georgia alternately laughed and slugged its way to a 7-5 win against Michigan.
"They played with all heart, a lot of passion and a lot of guts," coach Lu Harris-Champer said. "It's one of the most fun softball games I've ever been a part of, and I just love the fact that they loved the challenge, loved the opportunity and thrived under pressure."
In becoming the first team to rally from behind to win a game in this year's World Series, Georgia hit a record-breaking four home runs, including a pair from sophomore Taylor Schlopy and the first of freshman Ashley Pauly's career. It also got an effort in perseverance from pitcher Christie Hamilton, who came on in relief in the second and was immediately called for three illegal pitches in her first inning of work and five in the game.
"I just told her to keep battling and do what she does every day in practice," Harris-Champer said of her pitcher, who was also called for an illegal pitch in a complete-game win against Missouri earlier in the day. "I mean, I'm really proud of her for just loving it, loving that adversity and standing up to it and doing a great job."
Hamilton's response was simpler still.
"It was fun," she said of the challenge of dealing with the calls.
And so if a team was ever built to come through the losers' bracket, playing two games Saturday just to earn the chance to try to play two more the following day, it's this Georgia team. It's the youngest team in Division I, a team with 18 freshmen and sophomores and only seniors Schnake and Hamilton to represent the upper classes, but it's a team that seems to handle pressure like an astronaut handles gravity on a spacewalk.
"It didn't take long at all," Schnake said of the team's search for an identity. "We had some fall practices -- and even the sophomores this year, they had so much experience last year that they were pretty much like a veteran class for us -- so we had a couple of practices in the fall and we saw what the freshmen could do. And we told them, 'Listen, this is what we need, this is what we've got to be, this is what we want, this is our goal and we're going to get there this year.'"
The duality that exists between that intensity of purpose and the team's looseness is encapsulated on an individual level by Schnake. Her energy is endless -- after a confusing play in the Missouri game left everyone on the field unsure of which runners should be on which bases and how many outs there were, she made her way around tagging anyone in sight while the umpires debated the call. And as a result, games sometimes slow to a crawl to accommodate her mound visits or congratulatory high-fives for teammates after routine catches.
It's enough to occasionally give even Harris-Champer pause, but only occasionally.
Schnake says she sometimes forgets that most of her teammates are underclassmen or that she is a senior, settling on a happy medium where they're all juniors. And watching her play the game in her own unique way, it's easy to understand why young players such as Schlopy feel so free to play to their own abilities without worrying about pressure and why a pitcher such as Hamilton is still going on this stage while more highly touted aces are watching from home.
"I'll look at [Harris-Champer] in the dugout every once and awhile and she'll give me one of these," Schnake said as she gestured downward with two hands in the universal sign for settling down. "It's like, 'OK, Kristin, come on now.' But it's what my pitcher needs. If Christie's kind of lulling there, I come up and say, 'Come on, we're going to get this girl. We have your back; there's all eight of us here. You're not the only one on this mound.'
"I can kind of feel like what Christie needs or what Sarah needs. Sometimes they just need a joke on the mound. Sometimes I need to tell them something light about the situation and they can play ball."
Georgia is not a ragtag bunch of overachievers. Schlopy and Alisa Goler are legitimate first-team All-Americans as sophomores, and the power that provided home runs from three other players Saturday is nothing new for a team that has hit more than 80 on the season. And the Bulldogs are one of the most talented defensive teams in the country, beginning with Schnake's phenomenal range at shortstop.
But they also play with an unpretentious joy to be here. Even if every rally proves they aren't happy just to be here.
As Schnake put it, "I just tell them, 'It's just softball; it's all it is' We might be at the World Series, but all it is is a softball game. It's the same thing as we've always been doing. I just try to keep them calm and loose and excited and wanting to play."
Graham Hays covers softball for ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
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