From the start, expectations were high.
But Brittany Gray did not, and has not, disappointed.
If anything, she’s exceeded expectations on the University of Georgia softball team.
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A sophomore pitcher, the former Greenwood Community High School standout has been a starter from the beginning and is a major reason why the Bulldogs are national championship contenders.
“We’ve been working all year on going to Oklahoma City,” said Gray, referring to the site of the 2016 Women’s College World Series. “That’s what we’ve been pushing hard for.
“We actually got shirts made that say, ‘OKC.’”
If the Bulldogs do reach the World Series, Gray likely will have played a critical role — just as she has done throughout her first two seasons.
A four-year star at Greenwood, Gray was the nation’s 26th-ranked high school player when she committed to Georgia. And the Bulldogs wasted no time breaking in their prized recruit.
Gray appeared in 34 games last season, including 18 starts, and finished 15-6. She threw 137 innings, tallied 99 strikeouts, had an ERA of 2.68 and was, as the numbers reflect, instrumental in helping the Bulldogs reach the Super Regional of the NCAA Tournament.
Not surprisingly, she’s having an even better second season.
Gray is 5-1 with a team-best ERA of 1.77. She briefly had NCAA Division I’s lowest ERA early in the season and is still among the national leaders in that category.
More important than the numbers themselves is what they mean to the traditional national power Bulldogs. Off to a 12-1 start, they are ranked No. 9 and widely regarded as national championship contenders.
Gray likes their chances.
“It’s just amazing. We’re a lot closer this year than we were last year,” she said. “Personally, I’ve gotten a lot closer with a lot of the girls. We all just bring such a fun energy.”
An elementary education major, Gray had high expectations for herself coming in but was taken aback by how much responsibility was thrust on her shoulders as a freshman — especially on an established power.
She immediately earned the No. 2 starting job and went 6-4 against SEC opponents. One of her many season highlights was a five-inning no-hit win against Indiana.
Her first career start resulted in a four-hit win against Coppin State.
“Coming in as a freshman I didn’t think I would pitch near as much as I did,” said Gray, who limited opponents to a .218 batting average last season. “So I guess I was surprised how much playing time I got, but there’s still so much growth to do.
“I’m working on locations, working on different pitches and being able to use all of them in a game, making sure they’re all going to work when I want them to work.”
So far, most of what she throws works.
Gray, the No. 2 pitcher behind unbeaten senior teammate Chelsea Wilkinson, has given up only eight earned runs in 31.2 innings. She’s allowed only three extra-base hits, yielded 11 walks and limited batters to a .211 average.
“What’s helped me this year is, I’ve learned to trust myself and trust all the work that I’ve put in throughout the years and in practice this year,” Gray said. “I really just try to use that out in the field and not try to think too much.”
One of the state’s top sluggers in high school, Gray would ordinarily help the Bulldogs with her bat, as well. But she is not hitting this season because she suffered two stress fractures in her lower back late last season.
Although she has completely healed, coaches are giving her a year off at the plate to give her back extra time to rest.
“I do miss that. A lot, actually,” Gray said. “Hopefully, next year I can hit.”
Still, she is having the time of her life in college. More than she ever imagined.
“Oh gosh, I love it,” she said. “Literally, I am living the dream.”
Name: Brittany Gray
College: University of Georgia
High School: Greenwood (2014)
Favorite TV show: “Full House”
Favorite movie: “Pitch Perfect”
Major: Elementary education
Parents: Tim and Ronda Gray; brother, Joshua Gray