OKLAHOMA CITY — Chelsea Wilkinson sat quietly behind the postgame news conference table Sunday afternoon, mere minutes removed from the heartbreaking end to her college softball career.
What kind of legacy, Wilkinson was asked, does she believe her senior class is going to leave behind with the Georgia softball program?
“Well, obviously this has been such an incredible journey for all of us these four years,” she responded, tears beginning to form in her eyes, “so you know, we were just really focused on family this year, and I think that was just really huge.
“You know, the program was here before us and it’s going to go on long after us, so just the relationships that we built throughout this journey which we’ll carry throughout our lives.”
Sitting directly to Wilkinson’s left was Georgia coach Lu Harris-Champer, who patted Wilkinson on the shoulder and added, “And that’s the epitome of the senior class right there. That was outstanding, Chelsea.”
Wilkinson pitched the entirety of Georgia’s 4-1 Sunday loss to LSU that eliminated the Bulldogs from their third-ever Women’s College World Series appearance, and first since 2010.
That Georgia even reached major college softball’s championship event this year was an accomplishment most would have deemed impossible as recently as 10 days ago.
The Bulldogs finished eighth in the SEC’s regular-season standings and lost eight of their final 13 games before the postseason, then were knocked out of the SEC Tournament in just one game.
But something clicked once the NCAA Tournament began. Georgia went 3-1 and won the Athens Regional, then traveled to Gainesville, Fla., for the super regional round.
There, Georgia faced a daunting challenge in two-time defending national champion Florida. Surely, this is where the Bulldogs’ run would end, right?
Georgia swept Florida in two games, stunning the No. 1-ranked team in the country and punching its first ticket to Oklahoma City in six years.
“The ability just to really believe and care, and really have great trust for each other and just, you know, the grit and the heart and how much they just really get out there and compete and work hard for what is best for the team,” Harris-Champer said Sunday when asked what she’d remember about this senior class.
No one embodied that more than Kaylee Puailoa, who started her first three seasons and most of her senior year before Harris-Champer decided she would better help the team as a pinch hitter.
The Bulldogs’ clinching victory in Gainesville was made possible by Puailoa’s two-out, two-run, pinch-hit home run in the seventh inning with Florida leading 2-1.
Senior first baseman Tina Iosefa finished the 2016 season with 87 RBIs, a Georgia and SEC single-season record. That number also puts her at No. 15 on the NCAA’s single-season RBI list. The team also will say goodbye to Samantha LaZear, Katie Browne and Alex Hugo.
The future certainly appears bright for the Bulldogs, with players like junior right fielder Sydni Emanuel, sophomore left fielder Cortni Emanuel and freshman third baseman Alyssa DiCarlo back next season.
Sydni Emanuel and DiCarlo each earned spots on this year’s All-SEC first team.
But the lessons and legacy of the six 2016 Georgia softball seniors surely will carry on into next year.
“I think one of the biggest things was they always told us to have fun, always be yourself, don’t ever be afraid to be yourself around your team because your team is going to be your family at the end of the day,” Sydni Emanuel said. “We have to carry that over to the next year. I think that’ll be huge for our incoming class.”
DiCarlo added, “This class just never stopped fighting. I can take that from them. They compete every pitch.”