November 2, 2013

Lady Bruins state champs

Devin Golden

— COLUMBUS — Last year, a home run was the lingering memory from Northwest Whitfield’s softball state title victory.

This year, a simple grounder to senior third baseman Mallory Souther provided the final out as the Lady Bruins repeated as the Georgia High School Association’s Class 4A champions.

The contrast of those plays — and the similarity of the celebrations that followed — was proof that no matter how it happens, being the best always feels great.

Northwest lost 6-4 to Heritage-Catoosa in the championship round Saturday at the South Commons Softball Complex, but because the Lady Bruins had advanced from the winners’ bracket in the double-elimination tournament, the Lady Generals needed back-to-back wins against Northwest to claim the title.

The Lady Bruins didn’t let that happen, winning 12-6 in the winner-take-all second game to bring a championship trophy back to Tunnel Hill again.

“We just wanted to make it interesting,” senior second baseman Hannah Godfrey joked.

It was that way for much of the day on the diamond for Northwest, which finished the year with a 36-7 record and claimed a top-four finish for the fourth time in five seasons. The Lady Bruins led 4-1 in the first game, but Heritage (33-9) rallied in the final four innings to force the second matchup.

Ahead 7-6 in the decisive contest, the Lady Bruins scored four runs in the top of the sixth inning, eliminating the need for any late-game drama — unlike last year, when Bayli Cruse hit the winning two-run homer in a 2-1 extra-inning victory against Madison County.

However, the Lady Bruins didn’t stumble in last year’s championship round, beating Madison County in one game to avoid the pressure that a must-win contest brings. Cruse, a senior catcher, reflected on the difference between the 2012 and 2013 titles.

“It means a lot more to win it this year than last year, because this was our last game,” Cruse said. “This year, it was a team effort.”

Souther echoed the latter thought: “We played more together in this tournament than we ever have.”

Northwest’s three-day tournament run included 3-1 and 5-0 wins Thursday against Wayne County and Madison County, respectively. The Lady Bruins won 5-4 Friday in the winners’ bracket final against the Lady Generals, who beat Madison County 2-1 in Saturday’s losers’ bracket final to reach the championship round.

Northwest won slow-pitch softball state championships in 1987 and 1993, but last season’s title was the first in fast-pitch for the Lady Bruins, who finished third in the Class 4A bracket in 2009 and fourth in 2010. (The GHSA added the fast-pitch game in 1994, offering both versions of softball as an option before eliminating slow-pitch altogether after the 1997 season.)

Northwest also won team sports state titles in baseball (Class 3A, 1982) and girls golf (Class 4A, 2009).

For Lady Bruins right fielder Alyssa Ward, a freshman who celebrated a state title for the first time, the feeling of victory was overwhelming.

“It’s crazy,” she said. “I’m speechless. I knew we could do it.”

Cruse, Godfrey and Souther were among six seniors on this year’s roster — Ashley Conner, Colbie Thomas and Macy Weeks were the others. Other members of this year’s team were: juniors Brileigh Baggett, Gabbi Helton and Bayley Marquardt; sophomores Madison Gowin, Jamison Payne and Shelby Ralston; and freshmen Kayla Bearden, McCall Carlock and Kylee Ward.

The Lady Bruins are coached by Jason Brooker, who has won state titles in both of his seasons leading the team.