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July 21, 2013

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Local players on the road looking for tourney titles

Macy Weeks said making any national softball tournament is tough.

But the players around here make it seem easy.

At least nine current high school softball players or recent graduates will compete later this month in various national softball tournaments on different sides of the country.

Weeks, a left fielder for Northwest Whitfield’s Georgia High School Association Class 4A state championship team last fall, is on the Tennessee Fury 18 Gold squad out of Chattanooga. She said most of the players are either from South Georgia or Alabama. The team will compete in the Amateur Softball Association’s 18-and-under gold division tournament in Clearwater, Fla., starting today with the opening ceremonies.

She isn’t the only local player in the same tournament.

In fact, she isn’t even the only Lady Bruin.

Northwest graduate Emily Boyd is on the Tennessee Fury ‘95 team, which also will compete in the ASA’s 18-gold division tournament. Bayli Cruse, who will be a senior for the Lady Bruins and hit the walkoff home run to win the Class 4A state title last October, is on Boyd’s team.

Boyd called the ASA “the premiere softball association to play in.” There’s an 18-A division and an 18-gold division. The 18-A division allows college players, Boyd said, while the 18-gold division doesn’t. Still, Boyd, who will play softball at Ole Miss after earning a full-ride athletic scholarship, believes there are tons of future college players like herself in the gold division.

“In all other divisions except for 18-gold, there are state qualifiers and each state has a different number of berths,” she said. “It’s mainly all Division-I players who play in the gold division.”

The 18-gold division has regional and territorial tournaments throughout the spring and summer for teams to qualify into the national tournament. Different regions and territories account for a different number of berths — dependent on past success — and the maximum number of teams in the tournament is 76. Qualifying tournaments were held through the first full weekend in July.

Dalton’s Allie Blackwood, Christian Heritage’s Rebecca Leonard, North Murray’s Megan Pittman and Northwest’s Colbie Thomas and Hannah Godfrey play for the Georgia Force Elite, and the team also qualified for the ASA Nationals 18-gold division. The squad competed in the ASA’s 16-gold division last summer.

Blackwood is making her third consecutive appearance in an ASA national tournament. She was on last year’s team, which she said finished in the top 20, and two years ago was on the East Cobb Bullets, who were in the 16-gold division, and Blackwood said the team finished in the top 40.

She said next summer would be her last to play for a travel team, and it would have to be in the 18-A division where college players are allowed. Blackwood will play next spring at Austin Peay State University in Clarksdale, Tenn.

“There’s always a lot of teams from around the state,” Blackwood said. “If you make it to nationals, you’re obviously really good. Being able to play in 18-gold is cool, and this is the last time before I go off to college.”

Fellow recent graduate Mykeah Johnson is on the Tennessee Fury ’94 team playing in the ASA’s 18-A division tournament, which begins next Sunday in Salem, Va. As of Monday, the tournament’s team list included 76 squads. Boyd said Ashley Connor is on the Tennessee Fury ’96, which will compete at the Premier Girls Fastpitch national tournament, which begins next Sunday in Irvine, Calif.

None of the local players or high school coaches knew of anyone else who was competing in a nationals tournament.

Boyd’s teams — prior to the Chattanooga-based Fury, she played on a Calhoun travel squad — have gone to nationals the past five years. Twice the Fury tied for fifth. Weeks’ team reached nationals since the 12-and-under division and finished in the top 10 once.

Still, Weeks said it’s tough to even earn a spot in the event.

“You’re one of the top-rated teams in the nation if you get to go to that tournament,” she said. “You have to qualify to go, and it’s usually the best teams across the country.”

Blackwood agreed. She said only “two or three” other players on the Dalton High team besides her play summer travel ball. The talent level for nationals is much higher than the GHSA state playoffs, which the Lady Catamounts reached the past two falls.

“There’s a tremendous difference,” Blackwood said. “On the high school teams, you have maybe three or four standout players. At nationals, pretty much every player is a standout player. It’s just a completely different level of ball.”

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