By Devin Golden
TUNNEL HILL — Life after Emily Boyd hasn’t been so terrible for Northwest Whitfield High School’s softball team after all.
And in the pitcher’s circle, even if the performances aren’t as dominant as those given by Boyd the past four seasons, the Lady Bruins’ two main arms are doing just fine.
Northwest pitchers BriLeigh Baggett and Madison Gowin entered the 2013 season with a tough assignment — replace Boyd, one of the area’s best softball players in recent memory. But eight games into the season, both Baggett and Gowin are undefeated — along with the team — with Northwest already a game into its Sub-region 7B-4A schedule. The Lady Bruins are shooting for a third straight Region 7-4A title and will try to repeat as the Class 4A state champion despite the loss of Boyd, who was chosen The Daily Citizen’s All-Area Softball Player of the Year the past four seasons.
Baggett is a junior and became Northwest’s No. 1 starter with Boyd’s departure. Gowin is a sophomore and is filling a role similar to the one Baggett held last year.
“Last year, we did it the same way,” Northwest coach Jason Brooker said. “When we had the tournaments with five games, BriLeigh would pitch two and Emily would pitch three. We’re doing it the same way. When (region tournament) play starts, we’ll see how it goes. BriLeigh is definitely our No. 1 starter right now.”
That brings some pressure considering how good Boyd was.
Now at the University of Mississippi, Boyd compiled a 94-27 record, an ERA of 0.57 and struck out 1,017 batters during her high school career. She threw 14 no-hitters — five as a freshman (she had back-to-back no-hitters in her third and fourth high school starts), two as a sophomore, five as a junior and two as a senior. Three of those performances were perfect games, with two during her freshman season and one in her senior year.
In 2009, 2011 and 2012, Boyd and the Lady Bruins won the Region 7-4A title. They finished third, fourth and first at the Class 4A state tournament in those seasons, respectively.
According to ga.prepcountry.com, Boyd’s career numbers rank fourth in innings pitched, fifth in wins and ninth in strikeouts all time among Georgia high school pitchers.
That could be an intimidating career to follow, but Baggett said following Boyd hasn’t affected her.
Gowin, on the other hand, said replacing Boyd means a lot.
“Of course,” she said. “She’s Emily Boyd.”
However, with Baggett and Gowin pitching well, the Lady Bruins picked up right where 2012 stopped. In addition to being undefeated this year, they have won 22 straight games, a stretch dating back to a 7-4 loss to Class 5A’s Woodland-Bartow on Sept. 24, 2012.
Baggett is 5-0 and has allowed eight runs and 21 hits through 30 innings pitched for an ERA of 1.86. Gowin is 3-0 and has pitched 14 innings, allowing two runs off nine hits for an ERA of 1.00.
“Madison has three quality starts already and I feel pretty comfortable putting her in there,” Brooker said.
Boyd was Northwest’s starter for four seasons, but the last two included Baggett getting some experience as the protegé. The role has changed for Baggett, though, and now she is the experienced leader while Gowin is the understudy who gets experience along the way to prepare for when Baggett graduates.
“And she’ll be there for us when we need her,” Baggett said.
Gowin has an advantage Baggett didn’t during her freshman and sophomore years. Northwest has enough players for a junior varsity team, and that allows Gowin extra chances to improve.
“It’s just a practice, I guess,” Gowin said. “Every pitch is a chance to get better.”
Baggett took advantage of the chance to learn from Boyd.
“She would tell me everything I was doing wrong and stuff,” Baggett said.
Now it’s Baggett’s turn to teach Gowin.
“Watching them motivates me,” Gowin said. “Seeing Emily and knowing where she is going — even BriLeigh, too — just watching them pitch helps me a lot. ... I’ve watched BriLeigh and picked up on some things.”
Sure, things are different. Baggett isn’t an overpowering presence. She won’t strike out 16 or 17 batters like Boyd did in some games. Gowin won’t either, at least not yet.
But teams can win games without those things, as Northwest has shown.
And for the Lady Bruins, maybe a few more grounders or pop-ups isn’t such a bad thing.
“We’re not going to get the 14-strikeout games, but it’s better for our defense in the long run,” Brooker said. “If I was playing on defense, then I’d want the ball hit to me.”