October 5, 2013

Championship chase starts today for softball teams

Devin Golden

— The roles are reversed.

Can Northwest Whitfield High School’s softball team reverse its regular season results against rival Heritage-Catoosa?

Heritage’s Lady Generals swept the home-and-home series between the two teams this season — 6-5 on Sept. 10 in Ringgold and 6-3 on Sept. 26 in Tunnel Hill — and went 9-1 in Sub-region 7B-4A competition to earn the No. 1 seed for the Region 7-4A tournament. That competition begins today at the Heritage Point softball complex in Dalton, and Dalton and Southeast Whitfield will also be in the 11-team bracket.

Dalton is the No. 5 seed from Sub-region 7B-4A and will face Gilmer, Sub-region 7A-4A’s No. 4 seed, at 11 a.m. The winner ad-vances to play Heritage at 1 p.m. Southeast is the No. 6 seed from 7B and will face Pickens, 7A’s No. 3 seed, at 11 a.m. The winner moves on to play Northwest at 1 p.m.

The other first-round matchup is Cass, the No. 5 seed from 7A, facing 7B No. 4 seed LaFayette at 11 a.m. The winner plays River Ridge, 7A’s No. 1 seed, at 1 p.m.

Cedartown, 7A’s No. 2 seed, matches up with 7B No. 3 seed Ridgeland in the other second-round matchup at 1 p.m.

Two other regions with softball teams from Murray and Whitfield counties begin their double-elimination tournaments today. Murray County is in the Region 7-2A tournament at Alto Park in Rome, while Coahulla Creek and North Murray compete in the Region 5-3A tournament at Hamilton Crossing in Adairsville.

The top four finishers in each tournament earn a spot in their respective classification’s state playoffs.

Region 7-4A

Northwest won the past two region titles and took the Class 4A state championship last year, when the Lady Bruins went undefeated against all of their sub-region and region competition.

That included beating Heritage twice in the regular season and twice in the region tournament.

Northwest coach Jason Brooker believes winning twice in the regular season against Heritage provided his team some confidence heading into last year’s tournament — with a caveat.

“We knew they could beat us if we didn’t play our best,” he said.

Now the Lady Bruins (24-4) are the ones trying to nullify regular-season history while the Lady Generals (22-5) hope it plays a part in how the tournament shakes out. Heritage clinched its No. 1 seed with its last victory against Northwest, which went 8-0 against other league foes to claim the sub-region’s No. 2 seed for the region tournament.

“I am not sure that the two wins gives us any advantage,” Lady Generals coach Steve Chattin said. “We know they are a good club and we believe they respect us like we respect them.”

Along with piling up wins against sub-region foes, the two teams piled up all-region team selections, claiming eight of the sub-region’s 14 spots as selected by coaches. Northwest catcher Bayli Cruse was named Region 7-4A Player of the Year, while Heritage’s Lauren Lawson was voted Pitcher of the Year. Other Lady Bruins who made the team are pitcher BriLeigh Baggett, outfielders Colbie Thomas and Macy Weeks, and shortstop Ashley Conner.

Cruse believes that, like last season, Heritage and Northwest are a level above the other teams.

“We’re not nervous or overconfident to play them,” she said. “I think it’s just such a big game. Our errors hurt us when we played them. Come region tournament, it’ll be our turn.”

Each of the past two seasons, Dalton’s Lady Catamounts (9-17) entered the region tournament with a low seed but earned a berth in the state playoffs.

“When the region tournament starts, everyone is on equal ground again,” said Dalton coach Stacy Parker, who is in his first season with the Lady Cats. “That’s the way you present it to your girls. I guess it just depends on the group of girls you have. ... If we come out and hit the ball and not kill ourselves on defense, we’re definitely capable of reaching the state tournament.”

Southeast (7-17) faces the same task, and if the Lady Raiders play as well as they did during a 1-0 loss to Northwest this past Monday, they could be this year’s surprise.

“Like I told my kids, it doesn’t matter what happened in the season until now,” Lady Raiders coach Kelley Barton said. “To play that well against a good team like Northwest, I think it was a positive step heading into the region tournament.”

Region 5-3A

North Murray didn’t know its seed or first-round opponent until Thursday night as Region 5-3A’s regular season schedule wrapped up, but the Lady Mountaineers (11-15) already knew their seed wouldn’t be among the top four.

That means they also knew they would need to perform better than their seed to reach the state playoffs for a third straight year.

North Murray is the No. 5 seed and will play Adairsville at 4 p.m. The winner faces third-seeded Coahulla Creek at 6 p.m., while the loser won’t play again until Monday.

Somewhere along the way, the Lady Mountaineers either need to beat a team seeded better than them or hope another low-seeded team handles the upset.

Making a run starts with a few small things “going your way,” North Murray coach Steve Granger said.

“A couple bloopers here and there and your team starts believing,” he added. “I think our region, top to bottom, is competitive. I think anyone can win on any given night.”

The Lady Mountaineers returned seven starters from last season — seven girls who know how to win enough games in the region tournament to reach the state playoffs.

“Going in, it’s not going to be too overwhelming for them,” said Granger, who’s in his first season leading the team. “They have been there. They know what to expect and what is at stake. Hopefully, that will benefit us.”

Coahulla Creek, by comparison, hasn’t advanced past the region tournament in its two seasons of existence. The Lady Colts (18-6) are seeded third this year, though, and advancing to state is their lowest of expectations at this point.

“I think we have a good chance of winning the region,” said Coahulla Creek coach Josh Swiney, another first-year coach. “We played a great game against Ringgold the last time we played them and also played a great game against Cartersville. I think we have as good a shot as anybody to win it.”

Ringgold is the region’s No. 1 seed and Cartersville is No. 2. The Lady Colts can advance to state by avoiding an upset against the teams they went 10-0 against during region play.

“That can give you a little confidence,” Swiney said. “At the same time, we know we have to go out and play our game.”

Region 7-2A

When the season started, Murray County’s biggest goal was reaching the Class 2A state playoffs.

That hasn’t changed, and now is the time for the Lady Indians (13-15) to channel the regular season’s ups and dismiss the downs.

The Lady Indians went 10-4 overall and 4-1 in region play through the first half of the season. The second half wasn’t so kind, with Murray County at one point dropping six in a row and eight of nine games.

But the Lady Indians closed the regular season with two wins in the final three games, with the loss coming against No. 1 seed Calhoun.

“We have turned around,” Murray County coach Sandra Johnston said. “We had a tough spot in the middle, but we are playing better.”

The Lady Indians enter the region tournament the No. 5 seed and will play fourth-seeded Chattooga at noon today. The winner faces Calhoun at 2 p.m., while the loser doesn’t play again until Monday.

Knocking off Chattooga in the first round would be a good start to finishing in the final four.

“When we started out the year, we had individual goals and team goals and everyone turned them in,” Johnston said. “Reaching state was one of the team goals. ... We just have to hit.”