Whatever situation Northwest Whitfield High School’s softball team found itself in this season, senior catcher Bayli Cruse’s emotions were in step with the Lady Bruins’ pulse. When Northwest lost the Region 7-4A championship in heartbreaking fashion, Cruse cried because it was the last chance she and five other Lady Bruins seniors had to win another league title. When the Lady Bruins won the Class 4A state title for the second year in a row, she celebrated because winning proved Northwest could be just as successful after the graduation of standout pitcher Emily Boyd. And whatever the situation, turning to Cruse for help often yielded positive results.
When Northwest needed a baserunner, she led the usual dugout chants. When the team needed to calm down in the field, she walked to the pitcher’s circle. When the Lady Bruins needed a big hit, she often came through.
Through words, actions and emotions, Cruse was unequivocal in her status as the Lady Bruins’ leader — and she always instilled confidence in her coaches and teammates that she’d come through when it mattered most.
“When she steps to the plate,” Northwest coach Jason Brooker said, “I don’t know, there’s this feeling I have that she’s thinking, ‘I’m going to knock the cover off the ball.’ It’s a good feeling to have.”
Brooker called Cruse the heart and soul of this year’s team, and she also was the biggest threat in an already-threatening lineup, the largest vocal presence in an already-loud dugout and the leader on the field in an experienced lineup. All of those things made Cruse the all-around standout she was this season, and because of that, she is The Daily Citizen’s 2013 All-Area Softball Player of the Year.
Joining Cruse on the All-Area Softball Team are teammates BriLeigh Baggett, Hannah Godfrey, Colbie Thomas, Alyssa Ward and Macy Weeks. Also on the team are Coahulla Creek’s Baylee Adkins, Murray County’s Aubrie Osborne, North Murray’s Megan Pittman and Baylee Sutton and Southeast Whitfield’s Sydney Covington. All-Area honorees were selected by the newspaper’s sports staff based on input from area coaches.
Cruse, who was also selected by the Georgia Athletic Coaches Association as its Class 4A Player of the Year, finished the season with a .464 batting average, 62 RBIs, 21 doubles, 10 home runs, an .833 slugging percentage, a .500 on-base percentage and a 1.333 on-base-plus-slugging percentage. All of those stats were tops among Northwest hitters this season. All but the batting average, slugging, on-base and on-base plus slugging percentages led varsity softball players in Murray and Whitfield counties, with North Murray third baseman Pittman leading the other categories and offering a worthy challenge for the All-Area Player of the Year nod.
However, there were also intangibles that made Cruse stand out above the rest as she helped the Lady Bruins go 36-7 this year.
If you’ve been to any Lady Bruins game, you heard Cruse’s voice booming above all others from the dugout. She often led the team’s standard “top of the lineup” chant when Thomas, the team’s leadoff hitter, started an inning. She also was the de facto coach on the field when on defense, directing her teammates in each specific situation and helping her pitcher remain even-keeled.
She did that last season, too, and had no trouble doing so even for a battle-tested veteran like Boyd, who was selected Player of the Year the past four seasons and signed with Ole Miss. Boyd finished her high school career with a 94-27 record, 0.57 ERA and 1,017 strikeouts.
“I’m one of the more vocal ones,” said Cruse, who is in the all-area lineup for the third time after garnering honorable mention as a freshman. “I was taught to be vocal because I’m a catcher, which has to be vocal. You have to be telling everyone where to go, what play to do and even pick up BriLeigh. She likes me to be vocal, and Emily did, too, just because it builds their — I wouldn’t say confidence, but comfort.
“Emily was a big part (of the program’s previous success), but this year we wanted to show Emily wasn’t all we had. We had six seniors who wanted it as bad and we had BriLeigh, who was great.”
As comfortable as she made her teammates, Cruse made sure opposing baserunners were anything but. Most teams didn’t even try to steal bases against her. On the 11 occasions a baserunner did challenge Cruse’s arm strength and accuracy this season, they lost eight times.
“Not just her arm, but her blocking ability and taking control of the game was so valuable,” Brooker said. “I didn’t have to do much. That’s something I didn’t have to worry about.”
More important than keeping baserunners honest was Cruse’s job as a pitcher’s catcher. Brooker said the alteration from catching for Boyd to catching for Baggett, a junior who had only started occasionally in prior seasons, wasn’t as difficult for Cruse as it might be for other catchers. Cruse said that while Boyd threw more curveballs and Baggett offered more changeups, they had similar fastballs.
More than anything mechanical when it came to the pitching department, Cruse and the rest of the Lady Bruins battled the doubts of some outside the team that they wouldn’t be as successful minus Boyd’s arm.
“We had a lot of people say we wouldn’t win and wouldn’t be good,” Cruse said. “I think (catcher) is pretty important for the pitcher. Catcher frames and calls pitches. I think framing is more important than many think. And I saved a lot more pitches from going to the backstop with both Emily and BriLeigh.”
At least once, she didn’t stop the ball.
With Northwest tied with Heritage-Catoosa in a winner-takes-all matchup in the championship round of the Region 7-4A tournament, Northwest was trying to recover from a controversial call at home plate after the umpire ruled Cruse dropped the ball on a tag out. On the first pitch to the next batter, Baggett tried an intentional walk, something Northwest never practiced before.
The pitch sailed too high, and the Heritage runner sprinted home from third before Cruse could chase the ball down and toss it to Baggett, who was covering the plate. It was the bottom of the eighth inning, and the play gave Heritage the win and the region title, ending Northwest’s two-year reign as champion.
Immediately after Heritage scored and won, Cruse broke into tears.
“It was the very last region championship we’ll ever play,” she said, “and I hate that it ended that way.”
But Brooker said he’ll always remember Cruse’s ability to “bounce back.” He recalled an 0-for-12 stretch for Cruse during the season — one he called a “huge slump” for his star — and remembers her climbing out of the hitting hole.
Weeks later at the eight-team Class 4A state tournament in Columbus, she bounced back from that not-so-great ending to the region tournament with a clutch performance against Heritage. That knack for playing well at the most crucial moment was something she had demonstrated remarkably well in 2012, when she hit a walk-off home run to beat Madison County and win the Class 4A state title.
This year, in the winner’s bracket championship at the state tournament, Northwest trailed 4-1 in the third inning against Heritage. With the bases loaded, Cruse launched a grand slam and captured her favorite moment as a four-year starter for Northwest.
“Hitting that grand slam in the state tournament,” Cruse said, “felt a whole lot better than doing it in the region tournament or in a region game.”
That play was monumental in Northwest’s road to a second straight state championship.
Without it, who knows whether Cruse — who is headed to Tennessee Tech on a scholarship — and the Lady Bruins would have finished with another celebratory ending?
But hypotheticals mean little.
Like always, Cruse came through for the Lady Bruins when they needed her. Like always, Cruse was the beating heart of a proud program. And as long as the heart was beating — as long as Cruse’s voice was heard, bat was swinging and arm was throwing — Northwest always stood a chance.
“I’m proud of both state titles,” Cruse said, “but I’m really proud of this one because us seniors leave with two instead of just one.”
Here’s a look at the rest of this year’s all-area lineup:
• Pitcher — BriLeigh Baggett, Northwest: With Boyd gone, Baggett had to become the Lady Bruins’ ace.
It was a tough assignment — replacing one of the most well-known names in the state — but she completed it with impressive marks.
“I can’t be more proud of anybody really,” Brooker said. “All the ones who came back had (won state) before. BriLeigh waited behind Emily. She had a few starts last year. Coming in, she was the No. 1. You hear a lot of talk about, ‘Well, Emily Boyd is gone, so what are you going to do?’ I said, ‘We’ll be OK.’”
Baggett, who also made the GACA’s Class 4A All-State first team, finished this season with a 28-6 record, 2.01 ERA, 203 strikeouts and 223 innings pitched. She pitched every game in the postseason and threw a no-hitter against Madison County in the state tournament.
“She was the No. 1 pitcher,” Brooker said, “and we got a ring with her being the No. 1 pitcher.”
This is Baggett’s first all-area selection.
• First baseman — Baylee Adkins, Coahulla Creek: Just a sophomore, Adkins provided an important presence at the plate — she hit .304 with 16 RBIs and three doubles — and in the field for the Lady Colts, who went 19-8 for their best season yet in the program’s three years.
“She was extremely valuable on defense,” said Coahulla Creek coach Josh Swiney, who was in his first season leading the Lady Colts. “The corners are very crucial in softball and Baylee did a fantastic job this year. That goes to her credit for the work she put in.”
That work helped Coahulla Creek come within a victory of reaching the Class 3A state playoffs for the first time. Normally hitting fifth or sixth in the team’s lineup, Adkins’ biggest moment was a walk-off single to win 3-2 against Region 5-3A foe North Murray in September.
This is Adkins’ first all-area appearance.
• Second baseman — Hannah Godfrey, Northwest: Hitting second in Northwest’s lineup, Godfrey was part of the one-two combination — with Thomas, the leadoff hitter — that set up RBI opportunities for Cruse and the rest of the middle of the lineup.
“At the plate, she did her job,” Brooker said. “I think she was thrown out once or twice. I didn’t (ask her to steal bases) a lot because Bayli hit behind her. If Hannah stole, then Bayli would be behind her and first base would be open. Then teams would pitch around (Cruse).”
Godfrey finished with 13 stolen bases, fourth on the team, to compliment a .350 batting average and .407 slugging percentage. In the field, the senior filled a void left by Karlie Henson’s graduation. Godfrey moved from right field, where she played last season.
“I didn’t really want to break up our outfield, but I knew Alyssa Ward would be in the lineup somewhere,” Brooker said. “So it was best for the team. Hannah didn’t care.”
Godfrey is in the all-area lineup for the second straight season after earning honorable mention her sophomore year.
• Third baseman — Megan Pittman, North Murray: A challenger to Cruse for All-Area Player of the Year, the junior led the Lady Mountaineers, who went 17-20 but kept a streak of appearances in the state playoffs going.
She hit .534 from the leadoff spot with nine home runs, 19 RBIs, a .569 on-base percentage, 1.02 slugging percentage and 1.589 on-base plus slugging percentage.
She hit leadoff so teams couldn’t pitch around her, North Murray coach Steve Granger said. That affected her RBI numbers.
“Her batting average was pretty high,” Granger said. “Being leadoff, you’re obviously not hitting with people on base.”
On defense, she had a .954 fielding percentage, converting three double plays and a team-high 155 putouts.
“She’s outstanding,” Granger said. “Just her instinct of knowing what was going on. I don’t know how many times there was a runner on first and she’d read the ball and field a bunt and throw the runner out at second. I couldn’t ask for anything better.”
This is Pittman’s second consecutive all-area selection after earning honorable mention her freshman season.
• Shortstop — Baylee Sutton, North Murray: From the No. 3 spot in the lineup, Sutton played an important role for the Lady Mountaineers, who reached the second round of the Class 3A state playoffs.
With Pittman often reaching base, Sutton did the second part of the job. The junior hit .362 with seven home runs and a team-high 22 RBIs. She was named Offensive Player of the Year by league coaches in Region 5-3A.
“At the very beginning, I think those two were flip-flopped,” Granger said of Sutton and Pittman. “We had Baylee in the leadoff spot and Megan hitting third. They were pitching around Megan, and that’s when we decided to change.”
On defense, Granger said he’d take Sutton at shortstop against anyone else.
“Her and Megan on the left side, I’ll be honest, I’ll put that against any left side in the state,” Granger said. “They cover a lot of ground and their softball instincts are great.”
This is the first all-area appearance for Sutton, who earned honorable mention last season.
• Outfielder — Colbie Thomas, Northwest: Brooker, Thomas’ cousin, described the senior as “the straw that stirs the drink.” Hitting from the leadoff spot, she led the team with 11 triples and also sported a .374 batting average, 20 stolen bases and a 1.021 on-base plus slugging percentage.
“Besides doing the leadoff stuff, she had some huge hits late in the games at the end of the year,” Brooker said. “She might be 0-for-3 and she’s struggling and gets a big hit to help us out. Against LaFayette, we’re down 1-0 in the top of the seventh and the bases are loaded with two outs and two strikes and she hits a triple.”
In the field, her speed tracked down a lot of would-be base hits.
“I can’t ask for much more than what she gives,” Brooker said. “Sometimes, if a ball drops, and I guess I’m kind of spoiled, but I’ll get on her. She may run 100 feet only to have it drop. I guess I should lower my standards, because she gets to stuff no one can get to.”
This is the third straight all-area selection for Thomas, who earned honorable mention as a freshman.
• Outfielder — Alyssa Ward, Northwest: The only freshman to make the all-area team and the only freshman starting for the Lady Bruins, Ward led Northwest in steals (22) and tied Cruse in on-base percentage (.500).
She had a .444 batting average, and in some ways served as another leadoff hitter in the No. 9 spot.
“Her speed, that’s something you can’t coach,” Brooker said. “If she puts it on the ground, there’s a good chance she’s getting on. She isn’t going to hit it as far as Colbie or Hannah, but if she gets on and steals second, that works as a double.”
As a baserunner, there were times she stole third base without receiving a signal to do so, said Brooker, who obviously had no complaints so long as she was safe.
In the field, she had what was likely one of the year’s best catches among area players, a diving grab down the right-field line in the region tournament against Heritage.
“In my years of coaching baseball and softball, that’s probably the best catch I’ve seen,” Brooker said. “The situation made it so good, too, because that’s either an out or a triple.”
• Outfielder — Macy Weeks, Northwest: From the No. 5 spot in the Lady Bruins’ lineup, the senior hit .376 with 40 RBIs, 16 stolen bases and nine doubles.
“The thing about Macy is her attitude and leadership,” Brooker said. “If things are bad, then she’s not pouting. She’s staying up and being a leader. Besides her on-field abilities, that’s what sticks out the most to me.”
She completes the skill set with her defense — particularly, an impressive arm that made a game-saving out at third base in a 2-1 region tournament win against River Ridge.
“I’ve been looking back on the season,” Brooker said. “She was dependable out there. We knew coming in there wouldn’t be many strikeouts — there’d be more balls in play — but I wasn’t really worried.
“She can run. She’s a good baserunner, too. She drove in runs. ... She’s pretty complete with power, speed and a good arm.”
This is the second consecutive all-area nod for Weeks, who earned honorable mention as a freshman.
• Designated hitter — Aubrie Osborne, Murray County: A sophomore, Osborne played catcher as the Lady Indians finished 14-17 and one win shy of the Class 2A state playoffs for the second straight season.
“She’s a threat at the plate,” Murray County coach Sandra Johnston said. “She hit either third or fourth in the lineup for us. She was our best offensive player.”
That she was. She led the Lady Indians with a .451 batting average and 13 doubles, and she also scored 26 times and drove in 24 runs. Her .521 on-base percentage and .648 slugging percentage led the team and added to a 1.169 on-base plus slugging percentage. She also stole six bases in six attempts and had one home run.
“I’m thrilled to have her back next season,” Johnston said. “We should be in a pretty good spot with players like Aubrie back for us. She’s a leader for us behind the plate.”
This is the debut all-area appearance for Osborne, who earned honorable mention last year.
• Utility player — Sydney Covington, Southeast: A sophomore, Covington played half of the infield positions this season for the Lady Raiders, who went 11-16.
She was the team’s ace pitcher, but when not in the circle, she played either shortstop or second base.
“She’s just one of those kids who is always a pleasure to have on the team because she’ll always give 110 percent,” Southeast coach Kelley Barton said.
“It’s soothing as a coach because I can put Sydney anywhere on the field and I know she’ll be successful.”
This season, she finished with a .370 batting average, two home runs, 12 RBIs, a .667 slugging percentage and .960 on-base plus slugging percentage.
“Coming in as a freshman, Sydney was a good player but wasn’t in a leadership role yet,” Barton said. “This season, I think she transitioned to more of a leadership role. She started pushing her teammates. ... Obviously, she has gotten better at everything.”
This is the second straight all-area appearance for Covington, who made it last year as a second baseman.
• Honorable mention: Christian Heritage — Erin Leonard (Fr, P), Julia McDonald (So., OF), Halle Poteet (Fr., 2B); Coahulla Creek — Emily Banks (Jr., C), Shelbe Dilbeck (Jr., 2B), Erin Harden (Sr., P), Madeleine Kalafut (Jr., OF); Dalton — Kylee Harris (Jr., UT), Hailey Jones (Fr., UT), Christen Pender (Jr., 1B), Alli Swinford (Fr., UT), Blayne Thomason (So., OF); Murray County — Lindsey Dunn (So., UT), Whitney Gribble (So., UT), Shea Pendley (Jr., SS), Ashlee Strong (Jr., OF); North Murray — Kara Deal (Sr., UT), Samantha Stafford (Sr., C); Northwest — Ashley Conner (Sr., SS), Mallory Souther (Sr., 1B); Southeast — Chaya Drury (Sr., UT).