ATHENS -- There were power washers booming loudly this week as Georgia baseball players attempted to speak. They were undaunted, having spent the past six months trying to communicate over steel saws, power drills and other construction equipment.
“I’d listen to this all day any day to get a new stadium,” said Robert Tyler, the team’s ace pitcher. “It doesn’t bother me at all.”
It’s not quite a new stadium. Foley Field, which was built in 1966 and renovated in 1990, instead received a facelift at the cost of more than $12 million. For a Georgia baseball program that has been stuck in mediocrity for several years, it was a show of faith.
“Just seeing it built like this every day and seeing everything refurbished, when you’re practicing you just take a step back and say, ‘Wow, a lot of people put money in this, a lot of people actually care about this program,’ ” junior shortstop Nick King said. “So it makes you want to play harder, it makes you want to win for the program.”
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This program has endured a tough few years -- two straight losing seasons and three straight without a trip to the NCAA tournament, after going to the College World Series four times during the 2000s.
Not too much is being expected this season. Georgia was picked to finish fifth in the SEC East in the preseason coaches vote. Tyler was the only Bulldogs player picked to the preseason All-SEC team, and he was a second-teamer.
But the Bulldogs, in their second year under head coach Scott Stricklin, have improved in the most important area -- pitching. Tyler, a sophomore, is on track to be a first-round pick in 2016. And the Bulldogs get back Sean McLaughlin and Jared Walsh. Both were limited by injuries last year after projected to be the team’s No. 1 (McLaughlin) and No. 3 (Walsh) starters.
McLaughlin isn’t in the rotation for the opening series but could get back into it soon.
As for the hitting, Georgia still lacks the middle-of-the-order hitter that other teams have to pitch around. But players said there isn’t a weak spot in the lineup, and the defense is strong.
“We understand that outside of Georgia we might be the underdog, or nobody’s going for us,” King said. “But everyone in that locker room and everyone in the University of Georgia I can tell you really believes in this program and believes we can do good things this year.”
The season opens Friday with a three-game series against Eastern Illinois, at which fans can see all the changes at Foley Field:
Premium seating directly behind home plate, as well as near the press box.
Artificial turf in foul territory, painted red in spots to give the field a unique Georgia flavor.
A larger concourse.
A remodeled press box, which now has an elevator from the clubhouse.
The team also has a refurbished clubhouse, team meeting room and batting cage area.
“I had no problem with the prior locker room, but this is out of the stratosphere,” Walsh said. “This program was really hot in 2008, 2009, then went on tough times. But it’s definitely going in the right direction, recruiting great kids. I think we’re going about our business in the right way. Not to mention this new stadium. It’s gonna help recruiting for sure.”
The renovation plan was announced the summer of 2013, just after Stricklin was hired, with the stipulation that $5 million would have to be raised privately. That happened within six months, and when the cost inevitably went a bit higher than projected, Georgia’s administration went along.
“I think it speaks to the commitment our university has to our athletic programs,” Stricklin said.
Now he and his team hope to repay the faith.
“We come in here (this season) with a little bit better of a comfort level of what we know to expect,” Stricklin said. “But then again you never know what you’re gonna get. You never know how guys are gonna perform. And that’s what we’re anxious to see.”