Originally created 06/09/01

Diamond Dogs seek second national crown



OMAHA, Neb. - Like the seven other squads participating in this year's College World Series, Georgia's baseball team has been treated like royalty since arriving in town Wednesday night.

Great steaks, first-class facilities, the opportunity to hob-knob with major league celebrities. ...the experience has already been a memorable one.

Now, it's time to go to work.

Today at 1:30 on CBS, the sixth-seed Diamond Dogs (47-20) face second-seed Southern California (44-17) in what Georgia hopes will be a successful first step toward the program's second national crown.

"I don't think we're happy just to be here," Georgia coach Ron Polk said. "We're here to compete. I'm sure our kids will do the best that they can."

Catcher Tony Burchett takes it a step further than that.

"We're here to win a national championship," the senior said. "We didn't come here just to stand and look around. We're going to give it our best shot."

Third baseman Andy Neufeld believes the team is as ready as it can possibly be.

"We're just trying to relax right now," Neufeld said from Rosenblatt Stadium, where most of the Diamond Dogs watched Friday's first game between Stanford and Tulane. "But we're ready to play. I wish the game was today."

Neufeld's anticipation is easy to understand.

It's been 11 years since Georgia captured the 1990 title, while opponent Southern California not only is making its 22nd trip to the CWS in the past four years but will be trying to win its 13th national championship.

The Pac-10 champs won't be the most offensive-minded group the Diamond Dogs have faced this year. USC is only batting .299 as a team and just has one player (outfielder Brian Barre, 12) in double figures with home runs.

Trojan pitching, now that's another story.

Southern Cal boasts one of the strongest starting rotations in the country, led by junior Mark Prior (14-1, 1.50), who some consider the finest collegiate pitcher in the history of the sport.

It's difficult to pick up a newspaper or turn on the television without hearing or reading about the right-hander's stellar campaign.

Taken by the Chicago Cubs with the second pick in Tuesday's Major League amateur draft, Prior has won just about every post-season award a college player can receive after striking out 189 batters in just 131 2/3 innings.

At 6-foot-5 and 220 pounds, Prior is a dead ringer physically for Los Angeles Dodgers All-Star Kevin Brown and possess a fastball that reaches the upper 90s and a curve ball that buckles knees. Prior's even got a pretty fair change-up, although he hasn't had to use it much during the regular season.

But the Diamond Dogs aren't intimidated.

"He's lost a game, so he's not perfect," said shortstop Jeff Keppinger, who went 2-for-3 against Prior when the pitcher played for Vanderbilt in 1999.

Neufeld doesn't expect the team to change its hitting approach at all.

"I don't think we're intimidated," he said. "We're looking at him as just another pitcher. We're going to still try and get our hits, although we know it's going to be a tough battle."

Prior has a healthy respect for the Diamond Dogs as well.

"I know Georgia has a great team," said Prior, who was beaten by UGA 9-1. "They've got a powerful lineup, and that's typical of SEC teams. They always have powerful offenses.

"That's the difference between the Pac-10 and the SEC. The Pac-10 doesn't put up those kind of offensive numbers, so I'm looking for a different style baseball game. It's going to be interesting."

Cooling off Keppinger will be one of Prior's immediate goals.

A fourth-round selection Tuesday by the Pittsburgh Pirates, the junior has been scorching offensively, having hit seven homers in eight post-season games, including a 15-for-23 performance two weeks ago in the Athens Regional.

Jeremy Brown (7-3, 4.10) will start for the Diamond Dogs.

"We think Jeremy will do a fine job, but he's going to have to be at the top of his game," Polk said. "I've watched many games from that ball park (Rosenblatt) and it plays short, especially if the wind is blowing out. A pitcher really has to do a good job of changing speeds, because if it gets up in that jet stream. ... Just let me say this, no lead is safe."

Tennessee (46-18) and Miami (49-12) will square off in today's evening game with today's losers facing off Monday at 3, followed by the winners at 7 p.m. Monday.

Game: Georgia vs Southern California

When: Today

Time: 1:30 p.m.

On The Air: CBS/WRFC 960-AM

Records: Georgia - 47-20; Southern California - 44-17

What's Next: The loser of today's game plays the loser of tonight's Tennessee-Miami contest Monday at 3 p.m. (ESPN). The winner will play the winner of the Tennessee-Miami game Monday night at 7 (ESPN2).

Starting Pitchers: Georgia - Jeremy Brown (7-3, 4.10; Southern California - Mark Prior (14-1, 1.50).

Players To Watch: Georgia - SS Jeff Keppinger (.387-16-68), LF David Coffey (.346-4-29), 3B Andy Neufeld (.339-10-38), RF Adam Swann (.324-6-62), 1B Mark Thornhill (.323-2-46), CF Kris Edge (.311-0-21), DH/LF Doc Brooks (.265-16-53), DH Blake Bodenmiller (.255-2-32), 2B Jody Pollock (.242-2-31), C Tony Burchett (.225-9-38); Southern California - OF Brian Barre (.338-12-46), SS Seth Davidson (.322-2-26), C Alberto Concepcion (.321-4-35), 3B Michael Moon (.318-5-33), 1B Bill Peavey (.308-5-46), 1B Josh Persell (.301-6-37), IF Anthony Lunetta (.294-5-37).

UGA-USC Notes: Georgia shortstop Jeff Keppinger is coming of a dream tournament, having hit seven home runs in eight games. ...Georgia's bullpen has also performed consistently well, posting a sub-4.00 ERA over 200-plus innings this season. ...Florida International managed just one run in two games against USC starters Mark Prior and Rik Currier. ...The trip to Omaha is Southern Cal's third in four seasons, but it's first back-to-back visit since the national championship years of 1973-74 (before all the current players were born). ...The Trojans are batting .299 as a team and have scored just 380 runs. Georgia is also hitting but the Diamond Dogs have scored 481 times.