Side glad to have stayed in Athens

ATHENS – Joey Side could have left Georgia's baseball team last year, while the gettin' was good.

The Bulldogs were coming off a frustrating 30-25 season, and Side could have made himself eligible for the Major League draft because he was 21 years old. Georgia coach David Perno wasn't going to try to stop him.

Perno learned that lesson after the 2003 season, another dismal effort that finished with several key contributors having decisions to make about going pro or staying with the Bulldogs.

"We had the worst year possible (in 2003)," Perno said. "I said, ‘if they don't want to be here, let them go. We'll take who we've got, and we'll make something out of it.'"

Georgia went to the College World Series in 2004 despite having six players signed by professional teams. Thus, after 2005 ended, Perno wasn't about to beg anybody to stick around. Side, though, didn't need any convincing.

"I knew we were better than that, and I knew I was better than that," he said of 2005. "I kind let the team down in the way I played so I felt I owed it to this team to come back and finish my third year."

Consider that debt settled. Side, a junior centerfielder, leads the No. 11 Bulldogs with a .352 average and also leads the team in doubles (17) and triples (five). His nine home runs are third on the club, and he has 17 more hits than his closest teammate.

"I knew if Joey returned, he was going to be a great player," Perno said. "It's been a great decision on his part, and we have benefited from it as well."

Side's season is a major reason the Bulldogs (36-16, 16-11 SEC) have won 12 straight and are in position to win the SEC regular season title heading into tonight's opener of a three-game home series against Kentucky. The No. 7 Wildcats (41-11, 19-8) lead the Eastern Division by three games, meaning Georgia will have to sweep the series to earn a division title. It sounds like a tough task, but the Bulldogs have swept their last three conference series.

(The SEC is beginning all of this week's final series today to give teams more time to prepare for the conference tournament, which begins Wednesday in Hoover, Ala. Alabama leads the SEC West at 17-10 so the Bulldogs could end the weekend as tri-champs for the league crown overall if they sweep and Alabama wins only one game this weekend.)

Side's bat was the first to heat up for Georgia before this winning streak began, but his real contribution may have been a haircut. After drawing laughs with a mohawk hairstyle during a fall party attended by several team members, Side showed up for the April 25 Western Carolina game with the same hairstyle. The Bulldogs had lost five of their last eight games and were in danger of missing the eight-team SEC Tournament.

The new look got some laughs but not a win. Georgia fell 7-5 to the Catamounts, and Side shaved his head bare that night. The Bulldogs haven't lost since.

"I figured we needed to change something up so I came out with the mohawk," he said. "It didn't really help that game, but the next game we shaved it back off and that's when the road to, hopefully, the SEC Championship started."

"As things got tougher for us as a team, he did more for us to get us out of it," Perno said. "If we can get him to finish strong, we'll be in great shape."

Growing up in Loganville, Joey Side never dreamed of carrying the Bulldog baseball team on his shoulders. His thoughts were consumed with football. As a freshman at South Gwinnett High School, he backed up senior quarterback David Greene, who went on to become the NCAA's winningest quarterback with the Bulldogs.

Side succeeded Greene his sophomore season before moving to wide receiver as a junior and a senior. Middle Tennessee State offered a football scholarship, but the draw of playing anything for the Bulldogs led him to Athens.

He spent his first season, during which he was a Freshman All-American, trying to convince Greene to come out as a designated hitter for the baseball team.

"He could hit the crap out of the baseball," Side said.

Side still plays the outfield like a football player, throwing his body at the ball regularly to make eye-popping plays. The sight of Side diving to make a catch has left Perno holding his breath more than once, but it makes Side the best centerfielder in the SEC in Perno's opinion.

"Joey has been making great plays ever since he walked on campus," Perno said.

He won't be on campus much longer. The contribution he's made this year has done more than bring the Bulldogs back from the dead. It has raised his draft status so high that he'll almost certainly be a high pick and leave Georgia after this season.

"I know we're going to have to give him up now," Perno said, "but I want to go out on a great note."

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