For North Murray High School’s softball team, today could bring the program’s first trip to Columbus.
For Northwest Whitfield, the second round is just another step on the road to defending a state title.
The Lady Mountaineers and Lady Bruins have different perspectives, program histories and levels of success, but both teams want to accomplish the same thing today when they begin their respective best-of-three series in the Class 3A and Class 4A state playoffs.
Northwest travels to Atlanta to face Marist in the Class 4A bracket, with the first game of today’s doubleheader starting at 4 p.m. North Murray plays at Carnesville’s Franklin County in the Class 3A postseason, with the doubleheader starting at 5 p.m.
If necessary, a winner-takes-all third game will be Thursday.
The winners of second-round series advance to each classification’s eight-team, double-elimination state tournament, which will be held Oct. 31 through Nov. 2 in Columbus at the South Commons Softball Complex.
In 2011, the Lady Mountaineers (17-18) reached the state postseason for the first time, advancing to the second round of the Class 2A state playoffs before losing to eventual state champions Buford. Last season, Franklin County swept North Murray in the first round of the Class 3A bracket.
Now the Lady Mountaineers want to make it farther than before and have a rematch game to provide a little extra motivation.
“Our big goal this season was to go to Columbus,” North Murray coach Steve Granger said. “Down below that, our goal was to be region champs. We gave ourselves a chance to do that as we were playing in that ball game. So here we are playing in a series with a shot to go to Columbus. You have to like that.”
The Lady Mountaineers entered the Region 5-3A tournament seeded fifth and finished second behind Ringgold. In the first game of the first-round series against Banks County, North Murray trailed 8-1 with two outs in the bottom of the seventh inning but recorded eight consecutive hits and won 9-8. The Lady Mountaineers rolled in the second game, 12-2, to sweep through the opening round.
“We’re just going to keep the same approach we have all year — go out and play seven innings,” Granger said. “Here at the end, it has paid off for us. We played seven innings in the first game last week.”
North Murray would rather do something new — start quick.
“We want an intense game but we don’t want anything that dramatic,” said Samantha Stafford, a senior catcher for the Lady Mountaineers.
In last season’s series, Franklin County beat North Murray 6-3 and 12-4.
Granger, an assistant at the time to then-head coach Daphne Winkler, remembers how quick the Lady Lions were running the bases.
“Everything I found out is they’re about the same — they’re fast,” Granger said of this year’s Region 8 champs. “They don’t have a lot of power but are quick and can steal bases.”
Playing that type of team comes down to three important things, Granger said.
“No extra bases, make the plays we’re supposed to make and eliminate the walks,” he said. “If we can do those things, then I like our chances.”
The Lady Bruins (30-6) know Columbus and the state tournament pretty well.
Northwest reached the final destination three of the previous four years and is aiming for a third consecutive trip.
Standing in the way of the defending Class 4A state champs is a trip to Marist to face the Lady War Eagles (20-11), who also have a successful history with Class 4A state championships in 2008 and 2009.
It’s just another step in the season-long journey for Northwest.
“It’s how we approach everything, from the regular season to the region tournament and then first and second rounds of state,” Lady Bruins coach Jason Brooker said. “It’s just the next step. You can’t worry about the one after until you get through this one.”
Marist won Region 6 but needed three games to get past Lumpkin County in the first round.
In the only meeting between the two teams this season during the Cherokee Invitational on Sept. 6, Northwest won 4-0.
“They have a couple girls who can swing the bat,” Brooker said. “BriLeigh (Baggett) got out of a couple jams. She pitched really well. She struck out a lot and didn’t walk any.”
Baggett, the Lady Bruins’ ace, has repeated strong pitching performances a lot during this season’s crunch time.
Baggett and Northwest swept LaGrange 1-0 and 5-2 in last week’s first-round series. In her last nine starts, Baggett has pitched three shutouts and allowed three runs or fewer in four other performances.
Brooker said Marist showcased a strong pitcher in the two teams’ first meeting, but the Lady War Eagles had to use a different pitcher in the deciding third game of their first-round series.
“Evidently, Lumpkin hit the pitcher we saw pretty good, from what I hear,” Brooker said. “So I don’t know who we will face.”
The most promising development for a post-season run was the Lady Bruins’ offensive output in the second game of the doubleheader against LaGrange.
After managing to push across one run in the opener for a win, the Lady Bruins scored five in the nightcap.