October 27, 2012

State softball: Lady Bruins on brink of first title

By Drew Brantley

COLUMBUS — One more win.

After holding off West Laurens in the Class 4A state tournament for a 3-2 victory Friday night at the South Commons Softball Complex, Northwest Whitfield is one win away from a state title.

Lady Bruins pitcher Emily Boyd pitched all seven innings for Northwest in the championship bracket victory, allowing two earned runs on five hits and one walk while striking out five. She also drove in a run at the plate. The senior hurler has been a key figure for the squad since the team’s third-place state finish her freshman year.

“We have talked all year about steps,” Boyd said. “We looked at the state tournament as four steps. We’re looking at (today’s game) as just the last step. We want to be successful in that last step.”

The Lady Bruins (34-3) will face the winner of this morning’s consolation bracket final matchup between Madison County (32-7) and West Laurens (29-11) in the 12:20 p.m. final. Having opened the double-elimination tournament with three straight wins, the team they face will have to win twice to thwart Northwest’s quest for a title.

A second game would follow the first today, if necessary.

“That definitely takes the pressure off us,” Boyd said. “They will have to beat us twice in a row, and nobody has done that to us all year.”

After committing seven errors in Thursday night’s 8-7 win in eight innings against Madison County, the Lady Bruins — the top-ranked team in the Ga.PrepCountry Class 4A coaches poll — played much more solid defense against West Laurens.

Seven players had defensive assists or putouts for Northwest, and second baseman Karlie Henson and shortstop Ashley Conner were solid in the middle of the infield. Conner fielded three ground balls for outs and also leaped to snag a line drive to limit the damage West Laurens caused with a two-run fifth inning.

“Ashley Conner really saved us several times,” said Lady Bruins coach Jason Brooker, who’s in his first season leading the team.

The Lady Bruins scored all of their runs Friday in the top of the second.

Mykeah Johnson led off the inning with a single and Macy Weeks followed with a double. Mallory Souther advanced to second on a dropped third strike. The three of them scored on a wild pitch, a sacrifice fly from Boyd, and a single by Colbie Thomas, respectively.

Despite putting runners on base during every turn at bat except the fifth and loading the bases in the top of the seventh, Northwest was unable to do any more damage, stranding nine baserunners.

“After last night’s game, I thought we were pretty focused,” Brooker said. “But we left the bases loaded and runners at second and third. We left so many runners on base. I’ve told the girls all year, ‘I like to have one game where we have solid defense, great pitching, hit the ball and come up with big hits all together.’ There should be somebody stepping forward.”

Down 3-0, the Lady Raiders got to Boyd in the fifth as Rachel Gibbs singled and Faith Flanders followed with a home run to left-center field.

West Laurens put runners on base in every inning except the seventh.

Henson and Thomas each had two hits to lead the Northwest batters, who struck out six times.

Reigh Wilcher led West Laurens with two hits.

Flanders entered the circle down 1-0 in the second inning for West Laurens, recording five strikeouts and allowing two runs to score on starting pitcher Whitney Oliver’s slate but nothing further. Oliver finished with 1 1/3 innings pitched and one strikeout.

Northwest finished third in 2009 and fourth in 2011 after missing the tournament in 2010.

Brooker said he recognized quickly after taking over the team that it had a desire and ability to achieve at a high level.

“As coach here, I’ve just been a small part of it,” Brooker said. “The thing I try to do is not over-coach them — just let them play and do what they can do. My main job is helping them stay calm because they know how to get the job done.”

Now the team has one task to reach its top goal.

“We want to be No. 1,” Thomas said. “Just like every other team when they’re here. We all want to play to the last out.”

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