By Chris Whitfield
Northwest Whitfield High School’s softball team is looking to continue its reign as state champion. Wayne County is looking to make its mark.
It would seem both teams have something to prove.
Northwest and Wayne County meet at 4:15 p.m. today as the Georgia High School Association’s Class 4A double-elimination state tournament begins at the South Commons Softball Complex in Columbus. The winner advances to a 7:45 p.m. game against the winner of the first-round matchup between Madison County and Woodland-Henry.
In the other half of the bracket, South Effingham faces Walnut Grove and Heritage-Catoosa plays Perry in the opening round. Losers of the first-round games won’t play again until Friday morning, while second-round losers in the winners’ bracket won’t play again until Friday afternoon.
The two teams that win twice today will meet at 7 p.m. Friday in the winners’ bracket championship, with the winner of that game advancing to Saturday’s 12:20 p.m. title matchup.
Six of the eight spots in the bracket are occupied by teams from three regions — 3-4A, 7-4A and 8-4A.
Northwest finished runner-up to Heritage-Catoosa in 7-4A, Wayne County was second to South Effingham in 3-4A and Walnut Grove was second to Madison County in 8-4A. Woodland won the Region 4-4A title, while Region 2-4A’s Perry is the lone No. 3 seed in Class 4A to advance to Columbus.
Wayne County (29-4) lost to South Effingham three times this year, with the Lady Yellow Jackets’ other loss to Class 6A’s North Cobb. Wayne County swept Cairo and Veterans in best-of-three series in the first two rounds of the state playoffs to earn a spot in Columbus.
Northwest (32-6), which has lost four times to Heritage — the Lady Bruins’ other losses this season were to Class 6A’s Cherokee and Class 2A’s Calhoun — swept LaGrange and Marist in the first two rounds of the state playoffs to earn their third straight trip (and fourth in five years) to the state tournament.
The similarities between Northwest and Wayne County go beyond their seeds and results in the first two rounds of state, though. Both returned six starters from last season. Both have quality pitchers who are juniors — Wayne County has Myranda Hand and Northwest has BriLeigh Baggett — and both teams have power.
A lot of power.
Wayne County has hit 27 home runs this season, while Northwest has 17.
Baggett has been stellar in the circle, going 24-5 with a 1.86 ERA while averaging a strikeout per inning. Wayne County coach Dave Madray would not provide individual statistics for his team, but called Hand a “complete player.”
“She is just a real competitor,” said Madray, a longtime coach in other sports at the school who is in his first year leading the softball program. “She has a lot of experience at a very high level with summer travel ball. She defends her position well and is a very good hitter.”
Katelyn Manning is the only senior starter on the team. The other five returning starters are all juniors.
“We have a fairly balanced lineup with some speed and power,” Madray said. “I have some good hitters in the back of the lineup and throughout the order.”
Both teams were in Columbus last year, with the Lady Yellow Jackets falling to Madison County in the opening round and again in the losers’ bracket semifinals. Madison County ended up losing twice to Northwest, including a 3-2 extra-inning loss in the state championship game when Bayli Cruse slugged a walk-off two-run home run.
“I know absolutely nothing at all about Northwest other than they are the defending champs,” Madray said. “I know they are going to be a quality team. We are expecting a battle and hoping to go there and win the thing. I think the girls were satisfied to get there last year, but they want more this year.”
With no region title and Heritage having beaten the Lady Bruins in all but one meeting this season, Northwest would seem to enter the tournament without the pressure of being the favorite despite being the 2012 champion.
Northwest coach Jason Brooker, who led the Lady Bruins to the school’s first fast-pitch state title in his first season as coach, believes his team’s experience will be helpful.
“I think we are pretty loose, and sometimes maybe too much, but I would rather they be like that than to be too nervous,” Brooker said. “They have done a pretty good job of being positive. They know the routine of travel and staying in the hotel and eating out. Nothing is going to be a big surprise to them.”
Freshman right fielder Alyssa Ward’s .483 batting average leads the Lady Bruins, while Cruse, a senior catcher, has team highs with eight home runs and 54 RBIs. Senior outfielders Macy Weeks (.388, 39 RBIs) and Colbie Thomas (.388, 42 runs, 19 stolen bases), the team’s leadoff hitter, have also made strong offensive contributions.