October 15, 2013

Their second chance

State is new start for No. 2 seeds North Murray, Northwest Whitfield

Devin Golden

— Two local high school softball teams enter their state playoffs with the same seed but different feelings about how they earned them.

While North Murray’s Lady Mountaineers are thrilled to see their season simply continue, Northwest Whitfield’s Lady Bruins are upset their season goes on without celebrating another region championship.

Much of that has to do with expectations based on past success.

The Lady Mountaineers were seeded fifth entering the Region 5-3A tournament but finished second last week after getting hot in the losers’ bracket of the double-elimination event. The Lady Bruins were seeded second entering the Region 7-4A tournament and ultimately finished in the same position — but they also were within three outs of claiming the region title for the third straight year.

North Murray’s outcome equaled excitement. Northwest’s situation equaled disappointment.

No matter their region results, both teams have to come back to the middle and get ready for their best-of-three series in the first round of state, which start Wednesday with 5 p.m. doubleheaders. Third games, if necessary, would be played at the same time Thursday.

The Lady Bruins host LaGrange in the Class 4A playoffs, while the Lady Mountaineers host Banks County in the Class 3A playoffs.

North Murray

The Lady Mountaineers (15-18) have overachieved before.

In 2011, North Murray entered the Class 2A state playoffs as a No. 4 seed with a 16-12 record. In 2012, the team entered the Class 3A state playoffs with a 12-16 record as the third seed from Region 5.

The first two rounds of state are best-of-three series, with the remaining eight teams qualifying for a spot in the state tournament in Columbus.

Despite some early success for North Murray, which opened just four years ago, the trip to Columbus has remained elusive. Sophomore third baseman Megan Pittman said reaching the state tournament has been this team’s goal “from day one.”

A chance to finally make it there starts with Banks County, which lost in the first round of state last season. The Lady Leopards (16-8, according to ga.prepcountry.com) claimed the No. 3 seed from Region 7. The championship in that region was won by Buford, which is ranked second in the country by maxpreps.com.

“Only thing I know right now is (Banks County is) a scrappy bunch,” North Murray coach Steve Granger said.

That would be an apt description of the Lady Mountaineers, too.

Playing six games in five days, North Murray overcame a disappointing regular season and won three games against teams with better seeds before finally bowing out in a 12-3 loss to Ringgold in the region championship. North Murray would have had to beat the Lady Tigers — who rolled through the winners’ bracket — twice to claim the title.

The tournament ended this past Thursday for North Murray, which won four games and lost two, both to the Lady Tigers. Granger said he “absolutely” was happy with how the team played in the tournament.

Still, he and the Lady Mountaineers would no doubt have liked to be champions, too.

“I think in that last game, we were emotionally and physically drained,” Granger said. “It was a tough week playing six games. That’s tough for anyone.”

While the break between the loss to Ringgold and first game versus Banks is a longer one than the usual between games in the regular season, Granger said it is warranted after playing a flurry of games in a short time span.

“I think with the week we had before, we just needed a few days off,” he said. “I gave them the weekend off and then we started practicing Monday. I think the break will work out for us.”

Is there a chance it halts the momentum and string of good play for the team?

“As an athlete, we all worry if a break will do that,” senior pitcher Kara Deal said. “We’re going to practice hard and hopefully the break won’t be too much on us.”

Northwest Whitfield

A third consecutive region championship was in the grasp for the Lady Bruins (28-6) on Saturday in Tunnel Hill.

All they needed was three outs before Heritage-Catoosa could score two runs. At worst, they could get three outs before three runs and live for another inning.

Things didn’t go the way Northwest wanted. Heritage scored three runs and walked off Saturday with an 8-7 win in eight innings.

Now the Lady Bruins must play a state game as something other than a No. 1 seed for the first time since 2010.

“It’s been bothering me, but you have to get over it and put it behind us,” Northwest coach Jason Brooker said. “It’s probably the toughest loss we’ve had, since it meant so much as far as seeding goes and hosting the first two rounds if you win.”

When the Lady Bruins take the field Wednesday, they will have spent four days thinking about what went wrong against the Lady Generals.

“The good thing about softball is you get back on the field pretty soon most of the time,” Brooker said. “We’re ready to get back out there, but it’s good to get some practice in and kind of fine-tune everything.”

However, not winning the region title is a disappointment that could be forgotten if other goals are reached. Northwest won the 2012 Class 4A state championship, and winning a second in a row is the primary goal, just as it was when the season began.

LaGrange (20-8, according to ga.prepcountry.com) is Region 5’s third seed. Last season, the Lady Grangers were swept from the first round of the state playoffs by Madison County, the team Northwest beat to win the state championship.

Winning a state title brings increased scrutiny for a team, and senior left fielder Macy Weeks doesn’t believe that will change just because the Lady Bruins didn’t win region.

“When the season begins, you realize everyone is gunning for you,” she said. “Everyone wants to beat the 2012 state champions. ... We’re going to get the best of each team we play.”

Brooker noted LaGrange’s pitcher, Emily Anderson, as a tough matchup. Anderson has a 17-4 record in 26 appearances and an earned-run average of 1.05, according to maxpreps.com.

“I think she’s going to Georgia Tech,” Brooker said of Anderson. “They are in a tough region. I’m thinking Region 7 and Region 5, one through four, are two of the best regions in the state.”