By Drew Brantley
COLUMBUS — Led by a senior class that has already won more than 100 games in four seasons, Northwest Whitfield’s softball team can add its best start at the fastpitch state tournament to a long list of accomplishments.
The Lady Bruins (33-3) are one win away from the state finals at the South Commons Softball Complex, where the final eight teams in each classification began competition Thursday. But getting to tonight’s Class 4A championship bracket final — Northwest takes on West Laurens (29-10) at 7 p.m. — required struggling to an 8-7 eight-inning victory against Madison County (31-7) in a game that finished less than 30 minutes before midnight on the tournament’s first day.
With two highly ranked teams matching up in the second round of the state tournament — Northwest is No. 1 in the Ga.PrepCountry.com Class 4A coaches poll, while Madison County is second — fans might have expected a hard-fought game. But the play that preceded Thursday’s outcome didn’t match the stature of either team.
Despite committing seven errors and yielding five runs in the final two innings, the Lady Bruins advanced and have had most of today to rest before facing West Laurens.
Still, first-year Northwest coach Jason Brooker said one game does not define his team’s ability.
“We know they’re better than that,” Brooker said. “I think it comes down to focus and being mentally ready every time you go out there. Usually in a tournament, if you win it, you win one game that’s ugly. Hopefully, that was our ugly one.”
Northwest pitcher Emily Boyd, The Daily Citizen’s All-Area Softball Player of the Year the past three seasons, reached another career milestone in the win against Madison County by eclipsing the 1,000-strikeout mark in the circle at 1,003. And her ability to handle pressure in the circle helped earn her a spot at the plate against the Lady Raiders — she entered the batting lineup from her flex position in the sixth inning.
At the plate for just the third and fourth at-bats of her high school career, Boyd grounded into a fielder’s choice to end the top of the sixth, then delivered a three-run blast over the left-field fence in the eighth for the game’s deciding run. That lifted her career batting mark to .500.
“I don’t have a lot of experience hitting,” Boyd said, “but I do have experience in situations like that. Pitchers have to be good in pressure situations like that.”
Brooker said he thought the team needed batters who have proven they can perform when tension is high.
“We’ve had some younger players (at designated player) for us that have shown some flashes,” he said. “But I knew the moment wasn’t too big for Emily. I knew she had some power. She hits in (batting practice). I knew in that situation, her maturity should make her better prepared.”
Boyd’s chance at the plate in the eighth also allowed her to make amends for her trouble in the circle in the bottom of the seventh, when Madison County scored the tying run that forced an extra inning. Pieces of packed and loose dirt around the rubber disrupted her delivery and follow-through, which sent her off balance — she went to the ground after several pitches — and put two batters on with walks.
“I pitch with my heel on the rubber,” Boyd said. “(The dirt in front of it) had been pretty solid. But then big pieces of dirt started coming apart. So then I was pitching off the rubber and there was a hole at the very edge of my landing.”
Two timeouts and some hurried foot swipes by Boyd, Booker and the infielders improved the circle enough to finish the seventh with only the tying run allowed.
Runs were at a premium early, as neither team scored twice in an inning before the eighth, including the Lady Bruins’ chance in the third, when they scored once after drawing four walks in the inning.
But both teams found their offense in the extra inning.
Northwest’s Mykeah Johnson started the eighth by grounding out to the pitcher, sending international tiebreaker baserunner Ashley Conner to third. Macy Weeks singled to left to score Conner. Mallory Souther was hit by a pitch and Karlie Henson singled to put two runners on for Boyd.
Boyd said she was determined to make solid contact after her pitching trouble in the previous half inning and also paid attention to her counterpart, Alexis Damron, who entered the game as the second reliever for Madison County after Henson’s hit.
“I knew I was going to hit the ball hard ... I just felt like I would going up to the plate,” Boyd said. “And I was mad about the dirt situation. (Damron) threw one in on me for a strike, and then she went outside to get another strike. I knew if she came inside on me again I was going to hit it hard, if I could. I didn’t think it would go over.”
But Boyd sent the 2-2 pitch well beyond the temporary fence, which precipitated a mass sprint to home plate by her teammates to greet her.
Northwest catcher Bayli Cruse said she was not surprised by Boyd’s homer.
“I knew it was going to happen,” Cruse said. “That was her type of pitching. She can wait back good. That’s what she does at practice.
Madison County was not ready to quit either, though. After walks and a hit batter drove in a run, Brooker replaced Boyd with reliever Brileigh Baggett with the bases loaded, one out and an 8-4 Northwest lead.
“We talked about it,” Brooker said. “We said, ‘What should we do?’ We felt like Brileigh could come in and get them to hit the ball.”
After Northwest’s seventh error of the night allowed another run, the Raiders pulled off a triple steal after Haley Gordon trotted to first after taking ball three of a 3-2 count, as if she had been walked. The lead runners also moved up, with Kayla Argo scoring to cut the lead to its final score.
“All we had to do was tag the girl at the plate,” said Brooker, whose team was fooled on the play.
Baggett struck out Gordon after a foul ball and walked Bri Carr to reload the bases.
Boyd returned to the circle and fielded a wobbly grounder to make the final out.
“I thought I was going to miss it,” Boyd said. “I was scared.”
Boyd finished with 10 strikeouts, four hits and four walks in 6-2/3 innings pitched. Baggett struck out one and walked two in 1/3 of an inning.
At the plate, Northwest’s Colbie Thomas had two hits, including a double, Macy Weeks added two hits and as many RBIs and Conner added a double and a run.
The Lady Bruins claimed slowpitch softball Class 3A titles in 1987 and 1993, but their best fastpitch season was a third-place finish in 2009, when this year’s seniors were freshmen. Thursday’s win guarantees Northwest no worse than third place in this tournament.
Boyd pitched a one-hit shutout in an 8-0 win against Rutland in the opening round — a game shortened to five innings by the GHSA’s mercy rule — while striking out seven and walking one. Thomas had a double and two RBIs in the game, while Conner had two hits, an RBI and a run.
Northwest’s Class of 2013 could have made four career appearances in the state tournament, but Madison County took a best-of-three series in the second round of the state playoffs two years ago. The Lady Bruins beat Madison County 7-6 in extra innings to open this season.
Seeing the red and black of the Lady Raiders on the field again reignited the disappointment of missing out on Columbus two years ago.
“Oh yeah,” Boyd said. “We definitely didn’t want them to keep us from anything associated with the state tournament again. We wish we’d have gotten it sooner. But we wanted to show them who was the better team, and that we’ve gotten better over the last two years.”
Starting 2-0 in the state tournament gives the Lady Bruins a chance to improve on their effort in 2009, Boyd said.
“It’s definitely better than we’ve ever done,” Boyd said. “And we want to finish better than we ever have. The only thing better is first or second. We just have to draw in our focus and take care of business.”
Said Henson, “We knew (Madison County) was good. We knew we needed to play well. And even though we didn’t, with all the errors, it was a win. We’ve got to move on. If we have a bad night, OK. But we can’t play like that again and win a state championship.”