BUFORD -- Buford softball coach Tony Wolfe has never strayed from his philosophy of letting the best players take the field, regardless of age or experience.
At no time has that showed more than this season with four freshmen starters as the Lady Wolves (27-10) seek their state-record fifth consecutive state championship in Class AA.
Buford's pitching staff is anchored by freshmen starters Tessa Daniels (13-3, 1.13 ERA) and Bria Bush (9-4, 0.88). Also, he's got freshman Jordan Deep starting in the infield and Remington Hasty in the outfield.
Nearly half of the starting lineup for the Lady Wolves is freshmen, but that hasn't served as an excuse for why this program shouldn't be able to make it back to Columbus for the state finals.
"I've never started four freshman at the same time like this," said Wolfe, who is in his fifth season as the program's coach. "We've started over so much this season."
Second-ranked Buford plays host to North Murray in a second-round, best-of-three series beginning with a doubleheader at 4 p.m. today at Buford. North Murray, a No. 4 seed, moved on to the second round with a win in three games against No. 1 seed Union County last Friday in Blairsville, ensuring Buford another round of games at home.
"We know any team that can take two out of three against Union County must be pretty good," Wolfe added.
For the first time in Wolfe's tenure as coach, Buford is trying to make it to Columbus without the No. 1 seed. The Lady Wolves earned the No. 2 with a loss to top-ranked Greater Atlanta Christian (29-6), which is also still alive in the state title chase, in the Region 6-AA tournament.
"I do like our team a lot, but we're not nearly as favored to win it all as we have been in the past," Wolfe said.
Probably the biggest key to Wolfe making it work this season for Buford is putting the right pieces in place.
Only shortstop Kallie Case (.461 avg., 47 hits) and center fielder Kodi Ricketson (.348 avg., 19 RBIs) are playing the same position as last season.
Wolfe made two big moves this season to try to keep his best players on the field, while also getting his young talent in the game.
The biggest move was moving senior Lexi Overstreet, a University of Tennessee verbal commit, over to third base from her previous home behind the plate.
He knew it would be a gamble taking his best catcher and moving her to the corner of the infield, but he had to do it with Overstreet's defensive ability against bunts and slap single attempts.
Overstreet is used to being moved around. In her four years, she's played left field, right field, catcher and now third base. She also knows to default to the coaching savvy of Wolfe, who led Buford to state titles in softball and baseball last season.
"Coach Wolfe is so smart, he knows what's best for the team," Overstreet said. "I just want to be able to do what is best for the team."
With Overstreet now on the corner, senior Lanier Paul has stepped up and taken the lead at catcher.
Also, senior Madyson Wynegar (.355 avg.) has played in the designated player role this season after starting the past two years in left field, opening the door for Hasty (.538 avg., 14 hits) to take over in the outfield. That's a lot of turnover and change in a roster for a program still in the state championship hunt.
"Early in the year, I was a little skeptical because the pieces didn't seem to be fitting together," Ricketson said. "But eventually, we started working well together.
"We have such good team chemistry now, which helps out a lot if someone is having a bad day," Overstreet said.
For Case, Overstreet and Ricketson, the news last Friday that second round games would be played on their home field was certainly welcomed.
Not only did it mean that more friends and family be able to come to the games, but it would also eliminate a 15- or 16-hour day that traveling on a school day would require. Wolfe also likes the fact that his program doesn't have to face Union County ace Angie Hughes again.
"We feel so blessed to be able to play at home again," Case said.
Ricketson points to the ride back from the second-place finish at the Region 6-AA tournament as a defining moment for the program.
The ride back on the bus from Atlanta was spent talking about what they needed to do better if they hoped to make it back to Columbus.
Nothing was going to be given to them, even with their impressive track record of state titles. Many of those players are on college rosters, including 2010 seniors Karly Fullem and Chelsie Thomas, who are now both playing at Georgia Tech.
That's why Ricketson says they are approaching this year as if they are going for their first state title.
"We can't rely on what we did last year, because we are a different team now," she said.
Case says that Wolfe and the rest of the coaching staff help keep things in perspective. Their time together is much more than just playing a sport they love.
"We're all so blessed to be a part of this program," Case said. "It's a lot more than just playing softball."