October 28, 2012

That was a blast: Cruses walk-off HR leads Lady Bruins to softball state title

By Devin Golden

— COLUMBUS — Madison County went with the conservative approach to manufacture its first and only run in Saturday’s Class 4A softball state championship.

Northwest Whitfield was rewarded for being aggressive in response.

On the second pitch in the bottom of the eighth inning, Lady Bruins junior catcher Bayli Cruse launched a line drive to the deepest part of the field, straightaway center, but all that mattered was that the ball landed on the other side of the fence at the South Commons Softball Complex.

The walk-off, two-run home run gave the Lady Bruins a 2-1 win and the first fast-pitch softball state title in school history.

After seven scoreless innings from both sides, the Lady Red Raiders scored in the eighth, when the international tiebreaker — which places the player who made the last out in the previous inning — went into effect. Brianne Carr advanced to third on a sacrifice bunt, then scored two batters later on Jessica Allen’s grounder to second baseman Karlie Henson.

Needing a score to avoid heading to a do-or-die second game in the double-elimination tournament, Northwest (35-3) could’ve used the same small-ball approach taken by Madison County (33-8). With Hannah Godfrey starting the inning on second, a successful sacrifice bunt would have moved her to third and anything but a strikeout or shallow popup most likely would have scored a run.

Instead, Cruse, the team’s top power hitter, was granted the chance to swing away.

“We talked about it,” Northwest coach Jason Brooker said. “We had our Nos. 3, 4 and 5 coming up, and I kind of depend on one of them to get a hit. We talked about bunting and trying to bunt (Godfrey) in, but they’re a good team, and it would take a great bunt to get her in.

“I just kind of went with my gut. Bayli had been struggling, but the last time up she hit it hard to the center fielder.”

Cruse, who originally acted like she would bunt, connected as solid as she had all week with the fastball from Lady Red Raiders starting pitcher Randee Bettis.

“(Coach Brooker) said I wasn’t going to bunt no matter what,” Cruse said. “I’ve had a rough tournament. I’ve had five (total hits) in the four games.”

But Cruse knew the state title was coming to Tunnel Hill the moment the ball left her bat, and so did all of her teammates.

“I stopped and watched it, which is not the thing to do,” Godfrey said, giving her perspective from second base. “But I knew it was out.”

Junior first baseman Mallory Souther watched it from the dugout.

“Right when it hit off the bat, we knew it was gone,” she said. “We were going crazy.”

Third baseman Mykeah Johnson, who was also standing in the dugout, did one better.

“Actually, I called it,” the senior said. “Me and my teammate, Macy Weeks, were sitting, and I said, ‘Watch her hit a walk-off home run right here.’”

This was the second time Northwest, ranked No. 1 in the Ga.PrepCountry.Com Class 4A coaches poll, beat second-ranked Madison County in the state tournament and the third time the Lady Bruins topped the Lady Red Raiders this season. Coincidentally, all three wins were similar, and Northwest started and finished its 2012 campaign by beating the Region 8 champs.

The Lady Bruins won their first game of this season 7-6 in eight innings against Madison County in a game played at North Georgia College and State University. On Thursday, Northwest won 8-7 in eight innings in the tournament’s second round to move just two wins from a state title.

That win came after an 8-0 victory against Macon’s Rutland in the opening round of the tourney, and on Friday the Lady Bruins won 3-2 against West Laurens, which Madison County beat 2-1 in eight innings during Saturday morning’s consolation bracket final to earn a rematch with the Region 7 champs with the state title on the line.

“You have to give Northwest Whitfield credit,” Madison County coach Doug Kesler said. “They’ve beaten us three times this year, and each time has been in extra innings by one run. … We had our opportunities to win in all three games, but it did not go our way this year.”

Northwest finished third in Class 4A in 2009 and was fourth a year ago.

Two years ago, Madison County eliminated Northwest from the state playoffs just one round shy of Columbus. It’s the only time in the past four years the Lady Bruins did not make it to the state tournament, so going 3-for-3 against Madison County added something special to hoisting the trophy.

“We wanted to play them since the beginning,” said Emily Boyd, a senior who has been the team’s ace for four straight seasons. “From coming so close and not getting it, and having to lose your last game, it’s so much better to win your last game.”

Boyd also played a major role in the Lady Bruins’ win. She pitched all eight innings, allowed just five hits and struck out seven. She also walked one and had to deal with two Northwest errors as Madison County got runners on base in each inning except for the fifth and a runner to second in all but three innings.

However, the only time the Lady Red Raiders pushed a runner to third was in the eighth, because Boyd and her defense kept finding ways out of the jams.

“She battled the whole game,” Brooker said. “She has heart. She had a blister on her thumb. Her dad (assistant coach Greg Boyd) was saying he wasn’t sure if she could make it if it went another game. She sucked it up.”

And Northwest’s offense was similar. The Lady Bruins had a runner reach second base in all but three innings and even had runners at second and third in the fourth when Boyd grounded out to shortstop for the third out. Bettis held Northwest to six hits in the game, with Cruse collecting two and Souther having the only extra-base hit aside from the winning home run.

Colbie Thomas, Godfrey and Macy Weeks each had one single.

“We were guessing too much for their pitching, trying to figure out if she would come inside or outside,” Boyd said. “(Madison County hitters) were just trying to put it in play, not really swinging too hard. … They did a good job of it, and we had to step up and play defense. When you get to this level, you will be fighting out of jams. It’s just the pitchers who can get out of them who are the ones who win.”

Click here to sign up to receive text alerts on your team.