TUNNEL HILL —
Northwest Whitfield shortstop Ashley Conner took it personal.
During the opening game of Wednesday night’s Class 4A second-round state playoff series with Carrollton, the Lady Trojans walked Northwest catcher Bayli Cruse to load the bases in the fourth inning, bringing Conner to the plate.
“I was a little mad,” Conner said. “When they walked Bayli to get to me, all I wanted was to hit it and hit it really hard.”
Conner delivered a stinger down the third-base line that went off the outstretched glove of Carrollton’s Shelby Yates to bring in a pair of runs to give the Lady Bruins a 4-0 lead.
With pitcher Emily Boyd getting stronger and stronger as the night went on, Conner’s moment was more than enough to push the Lady Bruins (31-3) to their third trip in four seasons to Columbus for the eight-team, double-elimination state tournament. Boyd struck out 21 in the doubleheader sweep of the best-of-three series as Northwest won 5-0 and 15-1.
“We’ve always wanted to be in this position,” Conner said. “Winning region and winning in the playoffs is cool to have, but we have always been focused on winning a state championship, and we have a good chance.”
The Lady Bruins, the top-ranked team in the Ga.PrepCountry.com coaches poll and the Region 7-4A champs, will open the tournament next Thursday at the South Commons Softball Complex. Carrollton (27-9) came into the series ranked sixth.
“We have been so close to winning in the past, and I don’t think that we will be satisfied without winning a ring,” said Boyd, who led the Lady Bruins to a fourth-place finish last year.
For first-year Northwest head coach Jason Brooker, giving his seniors a last chance at a state title is the best part of the return.
“They know that we don’t just want to get to Columbus,” Brooker said. “They are experienced, they have been there before and they are ready to go. They are ready for that challenge.”
Northwest got off to a fast start in the opening game with Cruse delivering a single to center to bring in Colbie Thomas, who had walked, for a 1-0 lead in the first inning.
Boyd kept it that way until the fourth, when first baseman Mallory Souther started the inning with a single to left and Karlie Henson laid down a sacrifice bunt. Jamison Payne followed with a grounder that was misplayed at short to put runners at the corner and Colbie Thomas followed with an infield single between the pitcher’s circle and third to bring in Souther.
A sac bunt by Hannah Godfrey put runners at second and third to bring up Cruse. The intentional walk followed and Conner responded with her rip down the line. Conner struck again in the sixth after Godfrey started off the inning with a triple to right-center. Conner’s bloop double to left gave Boyd all the cushion she needed.
The senior right-hander ended the game with a three-up, three-down seventh, striking out a pair to end with 11 strikeouts. Cruse, Souther and Conner were all 2-for-3 in the game.
With Carrollton playing as the home team in the second game, Northwest took a 2-0 lead in the top of the second off an RBI double from Thomas and a sacrifice fly by Godfrey.
But the Lady Trojans responded in the bottom half of the inning as a Northwest error and an RBI single from Montana Miles allowed an unearned run.
Northwest answered when Souther blasted a two-run homer to left for a 4-1 lead. Singles from Conner and Macy Weeks drove in two more in the fourth, and Northwest scored an unearned run in the fifth for a 7-1 advantage.
A Souther sacrifice fly in the sixth stretched the lead to 8-1 and then the wheels came off for Carrollton in the seventh. Northwest scored seven runs on four hits, three Lady Trojan errors, two walks and two hit batters.
Fittingly, Boyd struck out the first and last batters she faced in the bottom of the inning.
Godfrey was 3-for-5, Karlie Henson was 2-for-3 and Souther was 2-for-4 with three RBIs.
“We are ready for Columbus,” Souther said. “When we start scoring like that, we know that Emily is going to take care of the rest. It is easier for her to relax, and we always want to score first and let her take care of the rest.”