Perno, Georgia bounce back after down year to make CWS finals

OMAHA, Neb. -- David Perno knew how outsiders could perceive his perpetual optimism for Georgia's 2008 season -- he was a guy in need of a quick turnaround.

He wouldn't have argued, either.

One year after taking the Bulldogs to their second College World Series in three seasons, Perno's 2007 team finished 23-33 and didn't even qualify for the SEC tournament.

But in 2008, he'd have five position starters back (four of whom played in Omaha in 2006) and 11 pitchers who had thrown most of the innings.

What's more, junior shortstop Gordon Beckham was being projected as a first-round pick in the major league draft. Closer Joshua Fields decided to return for his senior season after being drafted by Atlanta in the second round. And Georgia got a key addition when second baseman Michael Demperio transferred from Texas.

"We knew we had the pieces. Any time you have the best shortstop in the country, you know you're going to be good," Perno said. "When Josh decided to come back, I thought we better be good or I might not have a job."

And you thought only football and basketball coaches had that kind of pressure.

Worry not, though, for Perno, who has three years remaining on his contract.

Georgia, which wrapped up the SEC regular-season crown before its final series, is playing for the national championship for the first time since winning it in 1990.

For Perno, a member of the Bulldogs' 1990 squad who didn't play in that Series, it's a sweet feeling, if not a little surreal.

Perno came back to Georgia to be an assistant under Robert Sapp, his coach for a year at Middle Georgia Junior College. In 1999, after three mediocre seasons, Sapp was relieved of his duties. The Bulldogs then hired Ron Polk from Mississippi State, and Perno's future was in Polk's hands.

"I was lucky," Perno recalled. "I was doing the recruiting and had good relationships with all the players and their families and when Coach Polk took the job, a lot of players went to bat for me, [and] said, 'You need to keep him.'

"Coach Polk gave me a chance, and two years later, we were in the World Series."

When Polk decided to go back to Mississippi State after that 2001 season, Perno, then 33, was promoted to head coach. It was something he even gave thought to when he was playing for the Bulldogs, but got particularly serious about it after facing Atlanta Braves veteran pitcher John Smoltz during an exhibition the teams played.

"I was having a pretty good year, aluminum bat. And then we got the wood bat and I faced Smoltz, and said, 'Man, I've got no future in this deal,'" Perno said. "'I'm going to hang it up after this season and go into coaching.'

"It was a natural for me."

Georgia took an unbeaten path to the CWS finals by defeating Miami and then Stanford twice. The Dawgs will play upstart Fresno State in the best-of-three series that begins Monday (ESPN2, 7 p.m. ET).

"The key when you get here is whether you can keep playing as you're capable of," Stanford coach Mark Marquess said, "and I think they've done that."

While Beckham has lived up to his first-round tag, Fields and senior third baseman Ryan Peisel have been huge difference-makers for the Bulldogs in 2008.

As a junior last year, Peisel hit .295 with four homers and 29 RBIs. His numbers in 2008: .342-11-56.

Fields was 1-6 with a 4.46 earned-run average in 2007. This year, he's 17-for-17 in save opportunities while going 3-2 with a 3.50 ERA.

"The championship just sneaks up on you," Perno said. "You can't wait to get [to Omaha], then you finally do get here and things go your way. What a difference a year makes. It's amazing. It's been quite a run and I hope we can finish it out."

Curt McKeever is a reporter for the Lincoln Journal Star.