Minutes after Duke’s victory celebration Monday near the pitcher’s mound at Foley Field, Chris Pollard gathered his thoughts in preparation for a national TV interview. Then the players surprised their head coach by placing the coveted white Duke hard hat on his head with a bucket of water to follow.
“It just embodies what this team is all about,” Pollard said of the hard hat, which is passed from player to player during games. “They take a blue-collar approach to what they do and the hard hat kind of became a symbol for that. They’ve embraced that blue-collar mentality and that’s become sort of a rallying point for us.”
Rallying was the operative word for Duke as it came from behind for a fourth consecutive game to defeat Georgia, 8-4, and capture the NCAA tournament Athens Regional. The Blue Devils advanced to this weekend’s super regionals at national No. 9 seed Texas Tech.
To reach the final game, Duke defeated regional top-seeded and No. 8 national seed Georgia 8-5 earlier Monday.
“To say I’m proud of our team is the biggest understatement I’ve ever said,” Pollard said. “Unbelievable resiliency and character and fight.”
Pollard spoke with starting pitcher Mitch Stallings and right fielder Griffin Conine by his side. He said those two best represented the kind of fight Duke showed throughout the tournament, especially after its season appeared to be on life support in Saturday’s elimination game against Campbell.
Down 8-1 after six innings against Campbell, Duke contemplated the end to a historic season during a weather delay.
“We just talked about competing and trying to get a chance to play with each other another day,” Pollard said. “A lot of this came down to will. It just comes down to a will of not wanting it to come to an end. This was about a group of guys who had each other’s back and didn’t want this thing to come to a close.”
After a 16-8 win over Campbell, Duke spotted Troy a 4-0 lead before rallying to win 15-6. Then, earlier Monday, Duke fell behind Georgia 4-1 and rallied to win. That set up the finale in which the Blue Devils again dug themselves a 2-0 hole in the second inning.
A run-scoring double by Chris Proctor, a three-run homer from Zack Kone and a solo blast from Conine gave Duke a 5-2 lead it never lost. Conine, who struck out seven times in his first nine at-bats in the tournament, hit another solo home run in the seventh inning after blasting one in the earlier game Monday.
With the lead, the Blue Devils rode the arm of Stallings and reliever Jack Labosky. Stallings gave Duke its first quality start of the tournament. After going 4 1/3 innings in the Saturday game against Campbell, Stallings came back to pitch seven innings against Georgia. He allowed three earned runs on seven hits, throwing 114 pitches to bring his two-game total to 185. Stallings walked two and struck out six to improve to 4-5 with the win.
Labosky came in from third base to pitch two hitless innings and earn his 10th save of the season.
The win extended Duke’s program-record win total to 44 against 16 losses. Along the way this season the Blue Devils reached No. 8 in the Baseball America poll, their highest ranking ever. They also won their first NCAA tournament game since 1961.
There is a good chance Pollard’s postgame bath was also the first for a Duke coach in 57 years.
NOTES -- Duke freshman designated hitter Chris Crabtree, who had 14 at bats entering the tournament, was named the Athens Regional Most Outstanding Player. Crabtree went 10 for 14 with six runs scored, nine runs batted in, three doubles and two home runs. . . . Crabtree, pitcher Mitch Stallings, catcher Chris Proctor, second baseman Max Miller, shortstop Zack Kone and outfielder Griffin Conine all made the all-tournament team from Duke.