By Chris Whitfield
TUNNEL HILL — On two previous trips to Columbus in the past three years, the Northwest Whitfield softball team has had to watch as someone else walked off with the Class 4A state championship trophy.
This year, the top-ranked Lady Bruins have a simple goal — win four straight games and bring the state title back to Tunnel Hill.
Northwest (31-3), ranked No. 1 in the Ga.PrepCountry.com Class 4A coaches poll, will face Macon’s Rutland (21-8-1) at 4:15 p.m today as the state tournaments for all GHSA classifications begin at the South Commons Softball Complex in Columbus. The winner between Northwest and Rutland advances to a 7:45 matchup, while the loser won’t play again until 11 a.m. Friday and will be facing elimination.
In other opening games in Class 4A, Wayne County (24-2) will take on Madison County (30-6), with the winner advancing to play the Northwest-Rutland winner. West Laurens (27-10) takes on Columbus (30-4-1) and South Effingham (29-5-1) plays Lumpkin County (22-12) in the other half of the bracket.
The championship matchup is set for Saturday.
However things turn out for the Lady Bruins in Columbus this year, they can’t say they weren’t prepared for what it’s like at state.
“It is a totally different atmosphere, and only the best and the most mentally prepared team is going to come out on top down there,” Northwest senior pitcher Emily Boyd said. “It comes to a point where physical abilities don’t matter because all of the teams are matched up so closely. I think with us having experience there, it helps with the mental side of the tournament.”
Northwest, which won its third Region 7-4A title in four seasons this year, was fourth at state a year ago and third in 2009. The Lady Bruins earned their return trip to state by sweeping Carrollton in last week’s best-of-three second-round series. Rutland, which finished second in Region 2-4A, advanced to the tournament by sweeping Spaulding County.
Northwest coach Jason Brooker, who is in his first year leading the Lady Bruins, knows his team won’t surprise anyone — and that it will get every opponent’s best effort.
“I don’t think I have to worry about being nervous or feeling the pressure because they have been there, especially the juniors and seniors,” Brooker said. “It is OK to be a little nervous, but I don’t think that it will be a big factor for us. We’ve gotten everybody’s best all year long, and playing in this region helped us, too.”
One thing that helps with Northwest’s confidence is having Boyd in the circle. The Ole Miss commitment is 24-2 with 264 strikeouts in 165 innings this season, and she has allowed just 14 earned runs and has a minuscule 0.59 ERA. She is allowing an average of less than three hits per game.
But a number that isn’t a big deal to Boyd and her teammates is their top ranking heading into the tourney.
“Really, we haven’t made it bigger than it really is,” Boyd said. “Winning or losing doesn’t change anything in the grand scheme of life. We have put it more in perspective this year, and I think by doing that, we have been able to handle those expectations pretty well. We didn’t handle it well in the past. We are more mature now.”
Having a team that has been there before also helps. While the Lady Bruins have just three seniors — along with Boyd, second baseman Karlie Henson and third baseman Mykeah Johnson make up the Class of 2013 — the entire starting lineup saw plenty of action last year in Columbus.
“We know what it takes, and there shouldn’t be any nerves because we know what to expect and have been there,” Johnson said. “Now we are just ready to take care of business.”
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