November 3, 2013

State Champs: Different chapters, but same ending

COLUMBUS — In many ways, the story of the 2013 Northwest Whitfield High School softball team is quite different from the one of the 2012 Lady Bruins.

The last sentence is the same.

Northwest won its second straight Georgia High School Association Class 4A state title via a 12-6 victory against Heritage-Catoosa on Saturday at the South Commons Softball Complex. However, it’s worth noting the differences between the two editions of the Lady Bruins even if the end result was alike.

“We played more teams (this year) that were equal to our abilities,” Northwest senior left fielder Macy Weeks said. “We played more teams that were about the same as us.”

Last year’s Lady Bruins won the Region 7-4A championship, beat rival Heritage four times — twice in the regular season and twice in the region tournament — and went undefeated throughout the postseason. This year’s team lacked a region title — Heritage won it — and endured much more of a struggle with the Lady Generals, who beat the Lady Bruins in five of eight matchups, including a 6-4 win earlier Saturday that forced a second game in the championship series.

“Losing that first game kicked us into gear,” Northwest senior second baseman Hannah Godfrey said.

The difference between last year’s team and the 2013 Lady Bruins that was most easily noticeable?

Emily Boyd, Northwest’s ace pitcher from 2009 to 2012, who was chosen The Daily Citizen’s All-Area Softball Player of the Year four times and earned a full scholarship to Ole Miss.

“A lot of talk was made of her,” Northwest coach Jason Brooker said, “and she deserved every bit of it. This year, we had BriLeigh (Baggett) and she never was the No. 1 pitcher (before this season), you know. It’s big shoes to fill.”

Baggett may not have been as obviously dominant as Boyd, who finished her four-year run with more than 1,000 strikeouts and 14 no-hitters, including three perfect games. But the junior was a reliable arm for a team that had to rely on defense and pitching more than hitting for most of this year’s postseason. Baggett entered the state tournament with a 24-5 record and an ERA of 1.86.

There were other challenges, such as moving players to different positions and handling injuries. Godfrey started in right field last season but moved to second base because of the graduation of Karlie Henson. Gabbi Helton started the year at third base but injured her foot early in the season, so Mallory Souther moved from first base to third.

“The team last year, most of the seniors had been playing the same positions for three years,” Brooker said.

Regardless of the many differences in the two championship stories, the ending was the same to the reader. But for some of the leading characters in the title tale, this version meant more.

That was certainly true for the six seniors — Godfrey, Souther, Weeks, Ashley Conner, Bayli Cruse and Colbie Thomas — who played the final game of their high school careers.

“We wanted to go out winners,” said Conner, a shortstop.

They definitely didn’t want to go down losing two in a row to their rivals from one county to the north.

“I told those seniors before that last game,” Brooker said, “‘This is the last time you’ll wear this uniform. I’d give my right arm to be in my (baseball uniform) again. Play like you’ll never wear it again.’”

Weeks and Souther said they did just that as they proved all the challenges from earlier in the season to be inconsequential details.

“(Heritage) can have the region championship,” Weeks said. “We’ll be happy with the state championship.”

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