February 27, 2014

Extra innings: North Murray softball catcher Stafford signs with ABAC

By Chris Whitfield

— North Murray High School senior Samantha Stafford already knew she wanted to study at Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College (ABAC) in Tifton.

Getting to play softball there is a bonus.

Stafford, who started behind the plate for the Lady Mountaineers, signed with the Fillies on Wednesday at North Murray. She will receive a partial athletic scholarship and becomes the first Lady Mountaineers softball player to receive such a grant, North Murray coach Steve Granger said.

 “Hopefully, she is the first of many,” said Granger, who took over the softball program last fall after previously serving as the school’s head baseball coach and a softball assistant. “I couldn’t be prouder of her.”

Stafford, who plans to major in agribusiness and economics, said she never really expected to play softball in college. ABAC is a member of the National Junior College Athletic Association and the Georgia Collegiate Athletic Association (GCAA).

“ABAC was originally my No. 1 pick for college, and if I got to play ball that would be a bonus,” Stafford said. “I love the game, and I was just happy when (ABAC coach Donna Campbell) told me that I was on the team. It is all really just a bonus for me.

“It feels amazing and crazy all at the same time.”

Stafford finished the 2013 season with a .277 batting average with just 18 strikeouts in 128 plate appearances. She had an on-base percentage of .365 with 20 runs scored and 18 RBIs.

Stafford earned honorable mention on The Daily Citizen’s All-Area Softball Team last fall while helping the Lady Mountaineers advance to the state playoffs for the third consecutive season.

It was Granger’s first season as head coach, but he has been helping coach Stafford in some fashion since she was in middle school. He said having Stafford behind the plate in his first year leading the Lady Mountaineers was a significant help.

“To come in and know that position was filled and knowing the work ethic she has, it made things a lot smoother,” Granger said. “She is a hard worker and very coachable, and the other girls see that and respond to it.

“She was really like having another coach on the field. Anytime our pitcher seemed to get in trouble, Sam would beat me to the punch and get out there to calm her down. Whoever takes her spot, it will be some pretty big shoes to fill.”

Stafford knows she will be far from home — it is easily a four-hour drive to Tifton south on I-75 — but she said she will also have familiar faces in south Georgia.

“Two of my closest friends have gotten accepted there and we will all go together,” she said. “I also know a few people who have graduated from North Murray who are already down there.”

The Fillies went 26-21 and finished fifth in the GCAA state tournament last year and returned just three members of that team, with 13 freshmen on the roster this season. They’re 6-3 entering Friday’s home doubleheader against South Georgia College.