The East Hall High softball team gutted out wins in two close, pressure-packed games in last week’s Region 7-3A tournament to claim a coveted No. 1 playoff seed.
The Lady Vikings’ reward? Only a first-round matchup against defending state champion East Jackson High.
“They’re definitely not the typical four-seed,” East Hall coach Josh Joiner said with a laugh. “They won the state championship last year. It’s like, ‘Congratulations for winning the region; now you have to play the defending state champions.’”
That serves as proof the playoffs are a grind for everybody, including the seven area teams that will open the postseason with doubleheaders Wednesday. Chestatee, North Hall, Flowery Branch, Buford, Lumpkin County and White County join the Lady Vikings in their quest to reach the state championship weekend in Columbus.
Should first-round opponents split their doubleheaders, the deciding Game 3 will be held Thursday.
East Hall (18-9) is a week removed from winning its second region title in a row and in program history. Joiner’s squad lost to East Jackson twice this year, but he’s confident his team can change the trend when it opens its best-of-three series at 5 p.m. at East Hall Park in Gainesville.
“Neither time against them did we play very well,” Joiner said. “It’s not a good gauge of how good we are. I think if we play the way we’re capable of playing, we’ve got a real shot at beating them twice.”
The Lady Vikings’ region mates North Hall and Lumpkin County will both hit the road for the first round. The third-seeded Lady Trojans face Franklin County in Carnesville, while the No. 4 seed Lady Indians travel to Jefferson to meet top-seeded Jackson County.
After falling in the second round of the playoffs last year, East Hall’s season-long goal has been to advance even further this season.
That’s the same target Chestatee, which hosts No. 3 seed Stephens County High at 5 p.m. in Gainesville, has pursued in 2017. The second-seeded Lady War Eagles (14-10) were eliminated in the first round last season, their first trip to the playoffs since 2003.
“This is awesome, to be working with a group of girls and the six seniors who have been a part of building this since I’ve been here,” said fourth-year coach Adam Rich. “We’ve all worked together and fought together. We pretty much had a group of girls all understand how to do things right and how to work hard.”
Chestatee started the season in a rut, which Rich attributed to losing star pitcher and team leader Becca Eddins to graduation. But the Lady War Eagles enter the playoffs having won 10 of their last 15 games and finishing as Region 7-4A runner-up for the second consecutive year.
Rich pointed to Hannah Jones, Bailey Mason, Cheyenne Roper and Elizabeth Eddins — who topped her older sister’s strikeout mark — as players who have filled the leadership void.
“Early on, we were just figuring out who we were minus Becca,” the coach said. “ … We had a sit-down meeting and said, ‘We’re not (the 2016) team, so let’s be who we are. We can’t rely on last year’s success.’ It kind of clicked, even in the games we lost.”
Fourth-seeded White County is also trying to make it to the second round following a first-round postseason exit last year. The Lady Warriors will play No. 1 seed Jefferson High in Jefferson.
Then there’s Buford, which is simply trying to maintain the status quo.
The top-seeded Lady Wolves (21-4) out of Region 8-5A have won 10 straight state titles and begin the quest to claim their 11th against No. 4 seed Hiram at 4 p.m. in Buford.
Ranked No. 1 in Georgia by MaxPreps.com, Buford has a roster loaded with future Division I talent like pitcher Logan Caymol (a Tennessee commit) and first baseman Katie Perkins (North Carolina). Despite his team’s decade of dominance, Lady Wolves coach Tony Wolfe said he doesn’t have a difficult time motivating his players for the postseason.
“First of all, it’s always a new team, always a new group of kids,” Wolfe said. “Even though we have a number of players back from time to time like we do this year, there are new people involved, and any season is new in itself. The second part is I think our kids relish this time of year.
“It’s not that they’re bored with the regular season, but given the history of program, there’s another level of excitement and opportunity to them this time of year.”
Fourth-seeded Flowery Branch, which has honed its skills against competition like Buford all season, hopes to knock off No. 1 seed Carrollton High when their series begins at 5 p.m. in Carrollton.