By Chris Whitaker
The Americus Times-Recorder
AIKEN, S.C. — When it comes to Georgia Southwestern
athletics, not many people know more than Ricky Burgess.
No wonder, he’s been the “Voice of the Hurricanes” for more than 30 years.
He has seen some of the best moments in the school’s athletics history. He’s seen the men’s basketball team beat Southern Tech (now Polytechnic) in 1985 to earn its first trip to the NAIA Tournament. He watched the women’s team make the Final Four the next year. And one year later, the football team, led by Jimmy Hightower, beat West Georgia 7-6.
Burgess said this weekend’s run by the baseball team ranks right up there with those sports moments.
“If we could have pulled it off, it probably would have topped them,” he said. “I really think we played the best baseball of any team in the tournament — pitching, defense and hitting. We deserved to win, and the way we lost — getting the go-ahead run thrown out at home, they score on a squibbler with two outs and then we have two on with two outs and the tying run and winning run on — was tough. We deserved better, and we had some tough breaks.”
Before joining NCAA’s Division II, the Hurricanes were playing for conference championships regularly in all the major sports; its men’s tennis team was national-runner up in 2001.
“We were in the hunt every year in every sport seemed like,” said Burgess. “I don’t know how many more opportunities we’ll get because the Peach Belt is so good.
“Back then, there were 32 districts, and you had to win to get in. There were no at-large berths.”
Since becoming a member of the Peach Belt, GSW has struggled for success. The men’s basketball and softball teams played in their first conference tournament game in 2009, and the women’s basketball team came the closest to advancing this season when it lost 60-59 to Georgia College in the first round.
That was until the baseball team came along with its 10 seniors out to prove to the conference and everyone else who doubted what they could accomplish this season.
“It’s probably been magical,” said senior Bud Long, who was the lone Hurricane selected to the All-Peach Belt Team. “Nobody gave us a chance the whole year. There was no pressure at all; that’s the way I looked at it.
“It was disappointing we lost (Sunday) night and in the fashion we lost, a trickler down the first-base line. I think it was great just for the team and for the next couple of years. People will start to recognize Southwestern and will be able to play with the top dogs. Everything’s still sinking in.”
The baseball team is the second GSW team to have a winning record at 29-19; the men’s basketball team was 16-13 in 2006-07.
In comparison to the other Peach Belt schools, GSW has the least amount of scholarships. Burgess said McLain did an incredible job this season with less.
“I think when you look at what resources Coach McLain has compared to other schools, I think he deserves coach of the year to go .500 in the conference and making the tournament championship game. When you look at what GSW puts in baseball against the schools we’re competing against, he deserves it.
“We were a big fish in a little pond in the NAIA in the Southern States Athletic Conference and was always competing for a championship. The Peach Belt is so good and so competitive, I don’t know how long it’ll be before we get another chance.”
GSW is still in the process of building funds for its sports program. Athletics Director Jaclyn Kaylor said the university’s scholarship money comes through enrollment fees, the Hurricane Club, fundraising and private donors.
GSW has five scholarships that go toward student-athletes, including the Evan Bozof scholarship, which is for a baseball player. Long was the recipient this year.
“We’re obviously still smaller than everybody else,” said Kaylor. “That’s something that will always be an obstacle for us. We are truly making the most of what we’ve got. We’re not in Columbus where we have Synovus, Aflac or corporate sponsors giving us money. We depend on smaller donors, and we try to find as many as we can.”
Kaylor said another ingredient that can lead to more scholarship money is what the baseball team did this season — win.
“We played so well this year, and all our teams are doing better,” she said. “The more we win, the more attention we attract to ourselves and helps the school grow. The more they hear about GSW and remember it, they’ll see what we’re all about.
“Things will turn around. It will take us longer than it would Columbus State or Augusta State, who’s been a perennial powerhouse for years. We’re finally seeing the scales tip in our favor, and our time’s coming.”
Kaylor echoed Burgess’ comments about McLain and his staff.
“With what he had to do and had to work with, and if you compared our apples to other people’s apples, he and his staff did an amazing job,” she said. “I couldn’t be more proud of the team and how it played this year.”
McLain understands his, as well as the other coaches’ budgets may not be comparable, but he deals with it.
“It’s difficult when you don’t have what everybody else has,” he said. “It’s frustrating at times. You can either feel sorry for yourself and do nothing or realize where you’re at and what your limitations are and you figure out a way to be successful.”
PHOTO BY: Milledge Austin/USC Aiken Sports Information