UGA head coach Scott Stricklin talks about baseball team being in top 4
Nine years have elapsed since the UGA Spike Squad became an icon within Georgia athletics. But a debut appearance at Foley Field didn’t come until April 16, 2019 for a mid-week tilt against Clemson.
The student-run group suited up in the usual attire of full-body paint and a pair of football pads with spikes emerging. Its appearances at football, men’s basketball and gymnastics became commonplace, but baseball deserved an experience given the team’s strong season. Five members partook in the occasion.
Little did they know it would be the longest game in program history. Three-hundred fans were left, and most of those were traveling Clemson fans. A five-deep line — one of which had an 8 a.m. exam the following morning — of passionately-attired Spike Squad members dwindled. For the two or three that remained, delirium ensued.
“We were all tired and screaming,” said Brooks Patterson, the group’s co-president. “It was basically heckling at that point.”
Patterson and his friends made eye contact with the Georgia dugout shortly thereafter. Similar antics occurred from a few feet below. Third baseman Aaron Schunk sported a motorcycle helmet. Another player watched the late innings with a video-game guitar around his neck. The Bulldogs wanted the beloved group — which wore rally caps and designed goggles with plastic cups — to join them near the dugout.
As the game neared completion, a small gathering developed into a horde of students. A fraternity poured into the stadium as competition entered its sixth hour. It joined in with the Spike Squad and others in attendance to chant and cheer Georgia onto its 3-2 victory.
Attending the 20-inning walk-off victory inspired the group to create the home run helmet. A creative idea, some acrylic paint and a spin on tradition led to a staple for recognizing the Bulldogs across college baseball.
Georgia hosts the Athens Regional beginning Friday against Mercer.
“It’s awesome having those guys make it for us,” Schunk said. “Everybody wants to be a part of it. It’s pretty special to hit a home run and be able to put that helmet on.”
Birth of an idea
After head coach Scott Stricklin noticed the Spike Squad toughing out the lengthy game, a thank you message appeared in the group’s Twitter inbox. Stricklin invited the Spike Squad and the late-arriving fraternity back to Foley Field for batting practice after the Bulldogs finished.
Two creative members of the Spike Squad, Hunter Beasley and Abbey Swearngin, wanted to reciprocate it and began to brainstorm. They wanted to design something meaningful, not something that could be shoved in the upper corner of the Bulldogs’ locker room. A few ideas came to mind, maybe a savage bat, but the helmet was discovered fairly early in the process.
“It’s not every day that someone gets to go out and hit balls at Foley Field,” Beasley said. “We’re really glad we chose this concept, and hope it powers the team.”
Beasley and Swearngin took five days to find just the right helmet — one that fell within their budget and would fit universally among players.
Once that was in place, they shifted priorities to giving the helmet its own flair and uniqueness. A desire for a different feel than the savage pads worn by football (and borrowed by gymnastics) was prevalent, because the Spike Squad wanted to make this an original creation rather than a spin-off of their traditions.
Beasley’s focus was the bigger-picture duties. Some of the challenging tasks included removing padding to drill holes into the helmet so the spikes — a so-called “family secret” — stay intact. The helmet was spray painted with a dazzling gold tint, and the spikes were hand painted in black to ensure the colors didn’t mix.
Swearngin perfected the details. A template was used to paint the “Power G” across the side and the “SAVAGE” insignia in the team’s specific font. She then placed a water-based polyurethane spray across the design to protect it from the elements — some of which have been tested. After the paint slowly dried, it was onto presentation.
A larger group of Spike Squad members convened at home plate to shag some pitches from Stricklin. Chaz Phillips was the best of the group, but Patterson said he was a high-school baseball player. Automatic disqualification for the batting crown. Nevertheless, each swing created an unforgettable memory and the time came to present the helmet.
No one other than the Spike Squad knew about the helmet’s creation. Beasley had it stashed inside the Foley Field bowels on a mannequin head with a jacket draping it. Once Stricklin huddled everyone after batting practice, Beasley saw an opening.
“I took the cover off and nobody really noticed it at first,” Beasley said. “We went up to give it to Stricklin and told them it was to be used in whichever occasion they see fit.”
Once it clicked, Georgia players and coaches were amazed. Beasley made clear that it was a permanent gift rather than a temporary gesture. Schunk didn’t take much time to ponder on its use, and told the Spike Squad it should be the Bulldogs’ home run helmet.
“These are your own savage pads,” Beasley told the players.
Fueling a surge
A significant period of time went by before Georgia’s home run helmet came into full effect. The Bulldogs received the gift prior to a four-game stint away from home: Georgia Tech at SunTrust Park and a three-game series at Mississippi State. Georgia unexpectedly went 0-4 during that swing.
Maybe the helmet seemed like a bad luck charm at the time. Once returning home, those fortunes flipped and the bats began to shine. Georgia swept Florida on its turf and the momentum swing continued. It finished the regular season with an 8-2 record, and the long ball attributes to much of that surge.
Entering the season, concern radiated that Georgia wouldn’t be able to use such a prop as the helmet very often. The Bulldogs lost the power-hitting assets of Keegan McGovern and Michael Curry, but the power remained within the locker room. There’s a more-balanced approach as many players have even home run totals, but Georgia has one more deep shot (65) than in 2018 (64) with fewer games played.
Defying the doubts, the newly-designed helmet has been of frequent use.
“You want your guys to have fun,” Stricklin said. “That’s what it’s supposed to be, and this was very spontaneous. They’ve adopted it and that’s the thing to do. It’s fun to watch them have fun, and it means something good when they’re putting that helmet on.”
Each time a home run is hit, the helmet is usually placed on the hitter’s head in rapid fashion. Georgia reliever Adam Goodman is the protector of the helmet. He ensures it’s in a proper place and reaches the honoree safely. During the SEC tournament, however, things went awry. Catcher Mason Meadows hit a two-run homer against Mississippi, but made it to the dugout without the helmet atop his head. A shocked broadcast team discovered that Goodman left it in a bag inside the locker room.
Any mistreatment of such a coveted symbol serves as an alarming sign.
“It does look like it has a bit of wear,” Beasley said. “We might need to go back in and touch it up.”
Shortly after the Clemson thriller, the helmet was born. It found its way to fame a month later after Georgia’s next walk-off win, a 2-0 victory over Texas A&M in the SEC tournament.
Before the final toss of a six-pitch at-bat, Georgia shortstop Cam Shepherd looked down at his bat to see a design of red, black and gold encasing a barrel of aluminum. A breaking ball came in the Georgia shortstop’s sweet spot and found itself deposited over the left field fence.
Shepherd jolted down the third base line with a open-grinned smile and his fists clenched. He stood a step’s distance from Hoover Metropolitan Stadium’s home plate and spiked his red batting helmet. A ferocious throw meant a swap for a new pair of spikes.
Shepherd emerged from the mob with the shiny gold helmet adorned by six black spikes and “SAVAGE” emblazoned across the front. Those nationwide knew the fascination attached to the football team’s savage pads used to celebrate a turnover. Shepherd’s walk-off created a trend throughout the remainder of Georgia’s tournament games. Seemingly, it was mentioned by announcers each time the Bulldogs had an at-bat.
“I love it when the baseball guys take a page out of football’s playbook,” one SEC Network announcer said during Georgia’s 5-3 semifinal loss to Mississippi.
J.R. Reed, Georgia’s senior safety who has some memorable savage pad-based celebrations of his own, quote tweeted a video of Shepherd’s dramatics with a reference: “That savage helmet,” followed by mind blown and fire emojis.
The Spike Squad didn’t expect the helmet to garner such a level of recognition. Georgia’s video production unit first caught wind of it and soon the helmet was on nearly every team-issued release. Swearngin scrolled through Instagram with joy as she saw it time-and-time again on her feed.
Now, it’s the centerpiece of Georgia’s run toward Omaha, Nebraska, and the College World Series for the first time since 2008. After each home run, all wonder when a player will receive the helmet-wearing honor. And the Spike Squad claims its spot once more as a staple across Bulldog sports teams.
The latest project being fueled by a marathon game, five days working in a student apartment and even the help of a Little Caesars’ pizza box to collect splattered paint.
“It’s kind of like having a kid and you’re all proud of him right there,” Beasley said. “It’s their helmet now and it’s great to sit and watch it grow. We are trying to embrace the savage mentality for all sports.”