By Devin Golden
COLUMBUS — Emotions among the Northwest Whitfield softball players ranged somewhere between “It hasn’t hit me yet” and “Nothing compares.”
Don’t worry, Lady Bruins.
You’ll have the rest of your lives to get used to being state champions.
With a walk-off, two-run home run from junior catcher Bayli Cruse in the bottom of the eighth inning, Northwest beat Madison County 2-1 to claim the Georgia High School Association’s Class 4A state title Saturday at the South Commons Softball Complex. The final eight teams in each GHSA division competed here over the past three days in double-elimination brackets to determine who was Georgia’s best on the diamond.
And now, for the first time in school history, the fast-pitch softball state championship trophy will be in Tunnel Hill. This year’s Lady Bruins join similar counterparts, though — Northwest won Class 3A state titles in slow-pitch softball in 1987 and 1993, when that version of the game was still dominant.
However, Northwest senior third baseman is going to need a moment or two to process being part of such an elite group.
“It hasn’t hit me yet,” Johnson said moments after the dramatic victory. “It probably will when I wake up in the morning.”
This was Northwest’s third trip to Columbus in four years. The Lady Bruins finished third in 2009 and took fourth a year ago after missing the state tournament in 2010, when Madison County defeated Northwest in a best-of-three series in the second round of the state playoffs.
This year, Northwest — the top-ranked team in the Ga.PrepCountry.com Class 4A coaches poll — made it a clean sweep through the postseason on its way to a 35-3 record that included a streak of 14 wins at the finish. After winning four games at the Region 7-4A tournament to claim that title, the Lady Bruins swept South Atlanta and Carrollton in the first and second round of the state playoffs to earn a return trip to Columbus. There, they won 8-0 against Macon’s Rutland and 8-7 against Madison County in the first two rounds Thursday before topping West Laurens 3-2 Friday to set up Saturday’s championship faceoff with the Lady Red Raiders.
In addition to the frustration of 2010, Northwest had plenty of familiarity with Madison County from this season. The Lady Bruins opened the 2012 schedule with a win against the Northeast Georgia school — and like their other two games with the Lady Red Raiders this season, it was decided by one run and went to an extra inning.
But the most dramatic game was the final one. After both teams went scoreless through the first seven innings, the Lady Red Raiders (33-8) scored one run in the top of the eighth inning under international tiebreaker rules. With Hannah Godfrey starting the Lady Bruins’ half of the eighth at second base, Cruse launched the second pitch to deep center field to send the Northwest side into euphoria and the Madison County side into disbelief.
“I told the girls, ‘You couldn’t make a movie and write a better script than that,’” said Lady Bruins coach Jason Brooker, who was in his first year leading the team. “I guess before it started I wanted it to be 6-0, but not now that it’s over. I’m glad the way it happened.”
And the script’s final scene included the players surrounded by parents, coaches and friends in the outfield. Even then, some did not quite comprehend exactly what had happened.
“You can’t describe how it felt,” junior left fielder Macy Weeks said. “It’s still unreal. It still hasn’t registered.”
But for senior pitcher Emily Boyd, the team’s ace for four years and their arm in the circle for every inning Saturday, nothing compares.
“It feels amazing,” she said. “There is no other feeling like it.”