During last year’s run to the Class 4A state softball championship, the Northwest Whitfield High School Lady Bruins rode the arm of pitcher Emily Boyd and an offense with pop.
And while junior BriLeigh Baggett has done as well as anyone could to replace Boyd, the offense will have to find ways to scratch out runs against the state’s top pitchers when the Lady Bruins begin defense of that title Thursday in Columbus. Finding ways to generate those runs starts at the top of the lineup for Northwest.
After two rounds of best-of-three playoff series, the final eight teams in Class 4A play a double-elimination tournament starting on Thursday. The Lady Bruins (32-6) begin the tournament at 4:15 p.m. against Wayne County (29-4).
Colbie Thomas and Hannah Godfrey, two seniors, are the No. 1 and 2 hitters in the Lady Bruins’ order, and the pair will be crucial to Northwest’s chances.
Thomas, playing center field, and second baseman Godfrey know what their jobs are at the top of the order — to get into scoring position for the power part of the lineup with catcher Bayli Cruse, shortstop Ashley Conner, left fielder Macy Weeks and third baseman Mallory Souther.
“Pretty much, I have to get the team started,” said Thomas, the leadoff hitter. “My job is to get on so everyone else can do their job and get me around. We all know how we fit together and know what we are supposed to do in certain situations.”
Godfrey’s job depends on what happens in front of her.
“If Colbie gets on base, my job is to move her over,” Godfrey said. “If she gets a power hit (a double or a triple), which she can do, then my job is to get her in and get on base for the next one. I think we are all confident in what our jobs are. We know what we need to do.”
This year’s senior class has plenty of experience doing what they “need to do.” This is the class’ third straight trip to Columbus for the state tournament.
“People expect us to do it again, and we just say ‘We hope so,’” Thomas said. “It is going to be tough, but I think that we can do it. As long as we take care of Wayne County, then we will move to the next step. I don’t think that we are going to bring it home right now. I am not even thinking about that. I am thinking about today’s practice and Wayne County and then we will worry about the next one.”
That is the kind of attitude that coach Jason Brooker has come to expect from this team.
“We tell them a lot that you play every inning and play every pitch and every out and you can’t assume anything,” Brooker said. “Sometimes we have had lapses where we didn’t play an entire game. We have to do that in Columbus. I don’t think that anything is going to surprise them.”
Thomas has a .388 average with an on-base percentage of .433 and leads the team with 10 triples. Godfrey is the team leader in sacrifice bunts and has an on-base percentage of .414. Between the two, they have scored 83 runs — nearly a third of the total scored by the team.
“Colbie and Hannah get on and we are in pretty good business with the ones batting behind them,” Brooker said. “Hannah is unselfish and she will get the bunt down. With their speed and with their experience and their aggressiveness and baserunning skills — no one really talks about that a whole lot — it gives us a huge advantage. But every little extra base you can get is huge.”
Earlier this year, the Northwest offense went into a serious slump. Starting with a 9-1 loss to Calhoun on Sept. 16 and continuing until a 4-3 win over Heritage in the Region 7-4A tournament on Oct. 10, the Lady Bruins scored more than three runs just once in an eight-game stretch. It was a befuddling time for a team with plenty of offensive weapons.
“I don’t know what happened,” Godfrey said. “It happened out of nowhere. We didn’t do anything different or change anything. We have recovered, and hopefully it will just keep getting better. We tried switching the lineup a little bit, but then coach Brooker decided to do what got us here.”
They were able to work out of it, but along the way they dropped four games in a stretch of 11 contests. While the Lady Bruins swept playoff series’ over LaGrange and Marist, that late-season slump served as a lesson for the team.
“We know — especially since this year we have lost games — we know that we can lose and can be beat,” Godfrey said. “We know that we won it all last year, but that was last year.”