BUFORD — Buford’s trip to Columbus is as much about the culmination of a season’s worth of building relationships as it is softball.
Amidst the Wolves’ (21-4) possible frenzy of games over the next four days, which starts at noon today against Vidalia (23-9-1) at the South Commons Softball Complex, is the time spent being teenagers and reflecting on the season that now includes the opportunity to win the school’s third consecutive Class AA state softball title.
“The entire weekend is so much fun and we’re all excited to try and win state again,” Buford senior Alysha Rudnik said.
The Wolves have found a happy medium that works on such a long weekend between finishing the season strong on the field, as well as enjoying team meals and time together laughing and joking in their hotel rooms.
Over the past three seasons, No. 1 ranked Buford has strung together an impressive 18-consecutive postseason victories as the back-to-back state champs.
“We’ve definitely been on a good run,” Buford coach Tony Wolfe said.
However, one of their fondest memories is what takes place without gloves, bats and cleats in tow.
In what has now become a yearly tradition for Buford’s softball program in Columbus, they take time to write out messages to teammates to remember the season together using pillowcases as their tablet.
Players write funny messages, memories from games and inside jokes on the pillowcases for each other as they pass them around the room, similar to the way students sign yearbooks at the end of the school year.
“We look back at those pillowcases and they bring back a lot of memories,” said Lady Wolves junior third baseman Chelsie Thomas. “When I was a freshman, I got a really nice message from one of the seniors and it really made me feel welcome into the program.”
For players like Rudnik and Thomas, who already have two pillowcases with memories that they cherish written on them, it is now considered a rite of passage to send the seniors out in style, as well as welcome in younger players to the program.
For coaches, this tradition is a constructive use of time to avoid too much of a lull without any activities between games.
“Signing the pillowcases is really their bonding time and we give them a couple hours to enjoy doing that together,” Wolfe said. “The closeness this team has is really special and how they get along so well together.
“They enjoy this time getting to be together 24/7.”
On the field, Wolfe said the foundation of the team’s ability to go after another state title was playing a challenging schedule.
The Lady Wolves played games this season against two of the other state champions from 2008 — Oconee County from Class AAA and Marist from Class AAAA. And it doesn’t appear that Buford had many easy games over the course of the season, seeing 18 of the Lady Wolves’ 21 opponents qualified for the state playoffs in 2009.
If there’s a drawback in comparison to the rest of the quarterfinals’ field, it is an abbreviated schedule for the Lady Wolves.
While many of the other teams played between 32-34 games, Buford is sitting at only 25 as a result of rainouts over the course of the season, including six games missed in the Brookwood Invitational.
However, don’t count Wolfe as one of the concerned. He has all the confidence in the world in his program.
“Our team is very relaxed and very confident in themselves and their teammates,” Wolfe said. “We wanted to play the best in the state to prepare for Columbus.”
“Coach Wolfe just tells us to play Buford softball,” Thomas added.
With a roster loaded with talent at the plate and in the pitching circle, Wolfe says it isn’t necessary to try and perfect every aspect of the game.
Priority No. 1 for Buford is playing good defense. Then on offense, they try and master elements such as base running, swinging the bat and bunting.
Pitching is left for players and their individual pitching coaches.
Buford’s coach relies heavily on the talents of his assistant coaches Trent Adams, Casey Laws and Ronnie Samples to work with players.
“My job is to understand the personnel and try and put them in a position with the best chance to succeed,” Wolfe said. “I have very talented assistant coaches that do a phenomenal job with the girls on the team.”
The Lady Wolves continue to have a lot of experience from previous state championship teams. Buford is led in the circle by junior pitchers Karly Fullem (10-2, 96 strikeouts and 16 walks) and Melissa Dickie (8-1, 71 strikeouts, 19 walks).
Both Fullem and Dickie have plenty of experience pitching on the big stage at Columbus. Each of these pitchers threw a shutout as freshmen in 2007. Last year, they only allowed one earned run combined in seven postseason games.
“Our pitching is dominant,” Thomas said. “We have no worries with them in the circle.”
At the plate, it all starts with Thomas (.392 avg., 31 hits and a team-high 33 runs scored) and Kallie Case (.403 avg., 29 hits, 12 walks). Thomas is nearly perfect stealing bases the past two seasons — 48 times safe out of 49 attempts — then Case follows up by advancing the runner.
The meat of the Wolves’ batting order is led by Rudnik (.470 avg., 31 hits, six HRs and a team-high 32 RBIs) and Lexi Overstreet (.388 avg., 26 hits, 10 doubles) in the three and four spots in the order.
However, what impresses Wolfe most about his team is the fact that they know how to react in a given situation. They know to trust the coaching staff’s instincts. Playing small ball is sometimes just as effective as trying to put the ball into the gap. And home runs don’t necessarily win state titles.
“The softball IQ of this team is really high,” Wolfe said.