At the beginning of the season, the Georgia women were favored to comfortably win the South region and advance to Nationals. The Drop sisters were returning All-Americans while the rest of the lineup was filled with promising talent. Their veterans gave them an edge when it came to experience and consistency while the youth in their top seven gave the Bulldogs room to grow.
68 miles away, the Georgia Tech women were working with a similar roster structure. Their lineup was still very young, even compared to their 2017 group. However, upperclassmen like Mary Prouty and Amy Ruiz offered some stability from a scoring perspective.
Still, the Yellow Jackets were lacking a legitimate low-stick and they needed to make significant improvements on last year's underwhelming 5th place finish at the South Regional Championships
At the beginning of this season, these two teams were poised to do very different things. Expectations were high for Georgia while most ignored the Yellow Jackets. However, that narrative quickly changed at the Georgia Bulldog Invite where Georgia Tech came out of nowhere to pull off a massive upset in Athens. The Yellow Jackets utilized phenomenal pack-running to overwhelm the Bulldogs, 24 to 38.
Georgia Tech took spots 2-4-5-6-7 while Georgia settled for 1-3-10-11-13.
Georgia's loss wasn't as significant as Georgia Tech's win. The Bulldogs still had a top low-stick in Jessica Drop with a number of experienced women behind her. It was also clear that Samantha Drop was kept out of their lineup as well.
As for Coach Drosky's squad, their victory was an encouraging start. Still, the early season rust-buster led many to question whether or not this team was for real. Georgia could have been holding back. They didn't even run the other Drop sister! They would surely be better...right?
Fast forward to the Battle in Beantown. Georgia Tech entered Boston with the task of outrunning a field that held multiple ranked teams and established distance-oriented programs. That, however, didn't phase the underdogs. They put together a phenomenal runner-up performance, losing to Ole Miss by only three points.
Mary Prouty positioned herself as not only one of the best runners on her team, but one of the best runners in the nation. Her 7th place finish was complemented by sophomore Nicole Fegans who finished 13th. With Herndon and Ruiz both securing spots in the top 21, Georgia Tech looked like a truly formidable opponent to anyone who chose to challenge them.
While Georgia Tech basked in their early-season success, the Bulldogs were finding bumps in the road. As if one upset wasn't enough, Yale shocked Georgia at Paul Short, taking the win by nine points. Once again, Samantha Drop was nowhere to be seen. With finishes of 2-15-25-42-43, the women in red and black simply didn't have the edge that an additional low-stick was expected to provide them.
Things failed to improve at Pre-Nats as Georgia finished 9th in the White race. Jessica Drop's 11th place finish kept things interesting, but without sister Samantha Drop, Georgia was forced to settle for another disappointing finish.
But Georgia Tech? Their Cinderella season continued.
The Yellow Jackets finished 3rd at the Penn State Open thanks to a strong top two (8th and 9th). Their middle scorers kept things competitive (27th and 37th) while their fifth runner (62nd) avoided an ugly end to their top five (like we saw with Brown).
Was this what you expected? Georgia Tech pulling off upsets? Georgia being upset? Samantha Drop being injured? The Yellow Jackets having the better top two?
The roles between these two teams have suddenly been switched, leaving some to wonder if it will stay that way throughout the postseason.
Without Samantha Drop, any concerns people had about the Bulldogs are suddenly valid. They have a respectable team, but the weight of their success has been invested in their low-sticks. As for Georgia Tech, their overall development has made them one of the best kept secrets of the NCAA. They have shown that they are the real deal with consistent performances rather than just one standout race.
Despite the success we've from Georgia Tech and the troubles Georgia has encountered, the two teams still sit in odd postseason scenario.
The South region has been far more competitive than expected in 2018. Ole Miss was one of the few teams to defeat Georgia Tech this year while Florida has suddenly become national qualifying contender after comfortably beating Oklahoma State. Even Florida State has shown flashes of promise. When all is said and done, it's quite possible that neither Georgia Tech nor Georgia find a spot to the National Championship.
Our current Kolas qualifying projections currently have both teams in, but an accumulation of points at the conference meets could easily shift the power away from the South region and into the hands of teams in the Great Lakes region, Mountain region, or West region.
While nothing is set in stone, we are beginning to see how the qualifying picture is playing out. If Ole Miss does finish 4th in the South region, they will likely push in the 3rd place team to Nationals. If Georgia Tech finishes 4th, they too will have a chance of pushing in the 3rd place team to Nationals.
But if Georgia finishes 4th, they are almost guaranteed to stay home. If Georgia finishes 3rd and Florida (or Florida State) finishes 4th? Yep, the Bulldogs are still (probably) ending their season early.
In an ideal world, Georgia earn an automatic qualifier or is pushed into Nationals by the 4th place team. That, however, is far from a given.
But what about Georgia Tech? What if they don't end up in the top two? Sure, they could still qualify for Nationals, but the win against Georgia was supposed to be a major achievement that earned them a point. If they finish outside of the top two and Georgia fails to earn an automatic qualifying spot, Georgia Tech now has one less point and is in jeopardy of returning to Atlanta without a national qualifier. As of right now, Coach Drosky's team is projected to have two Kolas points.
When you begin to play around with the numbers and try different calculations, one thing becomes clear: These two teams need each other more they know.
If Georgia Tech falls out of the top two at the South Regional Championships, they need Georgia to earn a top two spot to give them an extra point. If Georgia falls to 3rd in the region, they need Georgia Tech to either a) have enough Kolas points to push them in from 4th place OR to disrupt Ole Miss and kick them out of a top two spot, thus pushing in Georgia.
Yes, it is still very possible for both teams to find an automatic qualifying spot. Will that happen? Maybe, maybe not. All we know is that the South region will not yield any easy competition.
These two programs have a history that is shrouded in disdain for each other. An in-state rivalry is usually never civil, and those who are loyal to their universities will fight tooth and nail to come out on top.
Yet, in 2018, these two squads must work together to take down their regional foes if they want to toe the line in Madison, Wisconsin one month from now.
As the old saying goes...
Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.