January 25, 2013

No ifs, ands or buts for Northwest softball state champions

TUNNEL HILL — In the immediate moments following their Class 4A softball state title victory this past fall, Emily Boyd and her Northwest Whitfield teammates felt like it was a dream.

But sometime in the past three months, the Lady Bruins woke up, only to realize they weren’t dreaming.

They really did win state.

The team held its postseason banquet Thursday night at the high school to remember the special season and recognize the individuals who made it happen. Such events are customary for sports teams, but this one felt more appropriate considering there was no “but” hovering over the year’s accomplishments.

“There’s always that ‘but,’” junior right fielder Hannah Godfrey said, “but this year we don’t have it. We had a good season and we won state.”

When Northwest beat Madison County for the title on Oct. 27 in Columbus, some Lady Bruins didn’t know what to think, saying it was tough to “accept.”

“I accept it more (now),” said Boyd, the team’s ace. “I actually believe it happened. It’s not just a dream anymore. ... It was a little blurry.”

Others agreed — the ending to the season felt astray from reality, even though it was. But after months of reigning as state champions, the emotions still rush back when their minds begin to daydream.

“I keep replaying it back,” junior catcher Bayli Cruse said.

Of course she would. She was the hero.

Cruse’s walk-off, two-run home run in the bottom of the eighth inning gave Northwest a 2-1 win against Madison County, which has become a rival to the Lady Bruins despite being on the other side of the state. It was the ending to a season that began with the same foe, but in much less of a pitchers’ duel as Northwest won 7-6 in extra innings at North Georgia College and State University.

“Emily wasn’t at her best,” Lady Bruins coach Jason Brooker told those in attendance at the banquet. “I knew we had a chance to be special after winning that game.”

Northwest’s second meeting of the season with Madison County happened in the second round of the state tournament in Columbus — two days before the teams played for the title — and the Lady Bruins won 8-7 in the eighth inning.

It was a game Brooker called “one of the craziest I’ve ever seen.” The Lady Bruins scored five runs in the eighth for an 8-3 lead, but the dirt around the pitching rubber started falling apart and Northwest allowed four runs before Boyd got the game’s final out.

“Once we won that game, I thought, ‘There’s no way we’re going to lose,’” Brooker said in his speech.

Then the Lady Bruins won 3-2 against West Laurens in the winner’s bracket final, setting up the state title victory against Madison County. It’s the first fast-pitch softball state championship in school history and first softball title since 1992, when the sport was still played under slow-pitch rules in Georgia. Northwest also won a slow-pitch title in 1987.

The team’s three seniors — Boyd, second baseman Karlie Henson and third baseman Mykeah Johnson — had been to Columbus for the state tournament twice; as sophomores, they lost to Madison County in the second round of the playoffs, the only thing that kept them from making four straight appearances in Columbus. Northwest finished third (2009) and fourth (2011) in its other trips to the state tournament over the past four seasons.

“I remember the most the feeling we got when we didn’t go to state, losing to Madison County sophomore year,” Boyd said.

And after that season, the team had a similar banquet. But the feeling is much different now.

“The atmosphere is different,” junior left fielder Macy Weeks said, “because you know it’s going to be something better than last time.”

Same with the reception. The celebrity status still lingers, even three months later.

“(A photo of the team) is still my language arts teacher’s background on her computer,” junior shortstop Ashley Conner said.

Said Johnson, “I work at a grocery store and everybody says, ‘Congratulations. Good job.’ Especially when I wear my state ring, and people say, ‘Congratulations.’ They think it’s a class ring. I tell them it’s a state title ring and the momentum changes.”

Said Henson, “Everyone is still excited, because it’s such a big deal.”

Such a big deal that it was hard to believe at first.

“The next morning I woke up and thought, ‘Wow, that really happened,’” Henson said.

They’ve woken up exactly 90 mornings since then, still daydreaming about the dream that really happened.

“I get the chills whenever I think about it,” junior center fielder Colbie Thomas said, “or when I look at pictures and stuff. It just all comes back.”

Receiving awards at the banquet were: BriLeigh Baggett (Pitching Award); Boyd (pitching award, MVP, Four-year Player Award); Conner (Silver Slugger); Cruse (Most Outstanding Player); Godfrey (Silver Slugger, Coaches Award); Henson (Ms. October, Gold Glove, Four-year Player Award); Johnson (Perseverance Award, Four-year Player Award); junior first baseman Mallory Souther (Gold Glove); Thomas (Silver Slugger); and Weeks (Ms. October).

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