The Valdosta Daily Times
They didn’t do it just once. They didn’t just do it twice. They did it three times.
Playing from behind clearly didn’t bother the Valdosta State Blazers this past week. The Blazers erased a deficit three times en route to the Gulf South Conference Tournament baseball championship, which they claimed with a, you guessed it, come-from-behind win over Delta State Thursday night.
The Blazers scored three runs in the bottom of the ninth to earn the 5-4 win, their second walk-off victory over the Statesmen in six days.
“I had confidence in our guys but you just don’t know how many times that is going to happen,” Valdosta State head coach Greg Guilliams said Friday. “What happens is, you get on the plus side of that momentum and all of the sudden that magic just seems to happen. I think our guys were confident and they believed in themselves.”
The Blazers’ confidence started long before the conference tournament, though. It began when they reeled off win-after-win in the final weeks of the regular season. Then, once in the tournament, the Blazers found a way to come out victorious in four of the five games, winning the school’s second GSC spring sports championship in five days (softball won it last Sunday).
“I have always felt like to win an eight-team, double elimination, tournament, you have to get some breaks,” said Guilliams, whose team has won 25 of its last 30 games.
“Some years you get them and some you don’t. Things just went our way a lot and we put ourselves in that situation.”
With the conference championship, the school’s second under Guilliams — VSU won in 2010 — the Blazers automatically qualified for the South Region Tournament set to begin next Thursday.
While the official announcement has yet to come from the NCAA, the Blazers are preparing themselves for a trip to Tampa, Fla., where they also went for the regional tournament following the 2010 GSC championship.
Once they arrive in Tampa, the Blazers could be a favorite to win it all, based solely on their performances the last two months.
“I think, obviously, there is truth to that, but anytime you are in tournament play it starts all over the again,” Guilliams said. “What happened in the regular season didn’t matter in the Gulf South Conference Tournament and what happened there doesn’t matter in the regional. Our guys are confident; they think, ‘Whoever we are going to play, we are going to win.’
“Now, does that guarantee anything? No, it doesn’t. But, before I go into battle I would like to have the mindset where we are going to win.”
In the conference tournament, the Blazers started 2-0 with extra inning wins over North Alabama and Delta State. Then, the rain come and the tournament was delayed for two days in the host city of Chattanooga, Tenn., forcing officials to move the tournament to Carrollton, the home of West Georgia. Then, rain forced the Blazers to be delayed another day.
Frustration had set in, but Guilliams said he was proud of his team’s ability to stay focused and fight for the win.
“It was frustrating but it was more frustrating for us because it was basically two different tournaments,” Guilliams said. “You start one in Chattanooga and put yourself in the winner’s bracket and know the other teams are going to run out of pitching in the loser’s bracket and then they start another tournament in another location and everyone’s pitching was rested.
“That was frustrating and that is what I didn’t agree with. They had no backup plan for the rain. But again, to our guys credit, they said, ‘It is what it is,’ and they had a goal to win the Gulf South Conference this year and they did it.”
The Blazers received contributions from nearly everyone on the roster this past week, although one player in particular rose the occasion and helped carry the team to the GSC crown.
Relief pitcher Benjamin Weil won a tournament-record three games and pitched a critical situation against Delta State in the championship game, halting the momentum of the Statesmen, who had two-run lead with an inning a half to play.
When asked if he could put in perspective what Weil has meant to VSU this season, Guilliams had a simple answer: No.
“I can’t,” Guilliams said. “He may be the Most Valuable Player in the Gulf South Conference. Having that guy in the bullpen where you know you can bring him in at any time to shut down any team’s momentum is unbelievable. He’s been that good.”
Now, as the Blazers prepare for the South Region Tournament, after taking Friday and today off, they also know another team in Valdosta has championship fever and they plan on supporting the journey.
“Sunday we are going to go watch the softball team win the region championship at 1 p.m. and then we are going to go practice,” Guilliams said. “And we are going to practice Monday and Tuesday and leave for Tampa on Wednesday.”