Having proven to be the best softball teams Region 7-AAA has to offer, they will now attempt to become the best in the state.
For Creekview, White County, West Hall and Lumpkin County, the road to Columbus and the state finals starts today in the North Sectionals, a double-elimination tournament at Lanier Point Park in Gainesville. It’s there that the top four team’s from 7-AAA will face the top four teams from 8-AAA.
No. 1-seed Creekview faces No. 4-seed Morgan County, No. 2-seed White County plays No. 3-seed Stephens County, No. 3-seed West Hall will take on No. 2-seed Oconee County and No. 4 seed-Lumpkin County plays the No. 1 team out of Region 8-AAA, Eastside.
West Hall (21-11) probably has the toughest row to hoe in the tournament.
Thanks to a 6-0 shutout care of Eastside in the region championship, the Lady Spartans will take on the state’s second-ranked team in perennial powerhouse Oconee County (28-4-2).
"My girls are looking forward to the challenge," West Hall coach Warren Sellers said. "We’ve had three good days of practice this week and have taken a lot of batting practice."
Much-needed batting practice, considering that Oconee brings to the circle what has been dubbed the youngest and strongest 1-2 punch in the state in freshman pitchers Geri Ann Blasco and Courtney Poole.
The two have a combined record of 28-4-2, and a combined ERA of 2.18. Between them, the young hurlers have thrown 124 innings and amassed 267 strikeouts, with neither giving up more than 60 hits this season.
"This time of year it boils down to pitching and fielding," said Sellers whose team boasts an ace of its own in Emily Hammond.
"You don’t have to be great hitters, just opportunistic. It’s no longer about how many hits you get, but when you get them."
Hammond was the losing pitcher in a game against Oconee County last year in the North Sectionals. Sellers is confident, however, that having faced the Lady Warriors a year ago (a 7-0 loss) did nothing but give Hammond confidence going into this year’s matchup.
"Emily’s (Hammond) a year older and more experienced," Sellers said. "That’s going to go a long way in helping our team do well.
"The girls are ready to play," he added. "This is a huge challenge for us."
Playing in West Hall’s favor is the locale. The Lady Spartans have played 10 games at Lanier Point Park this season and, according to Sellers, consider it, "Their home away from home.
"It’s an advantage," he said. "Being able to sleep in your own bed and not travel and have your fans — it’s definitely an advantage."
The other Region 7-AAA team with an obvious uphill climb to Columbus is Lumpkin County.
"We know they’re a good team," said Lumpkin (20-14) County coach Lori Hall of Eastside, "so we’ve just been working this week on playing together, putting the ball in play and playing our game."
Eastside (24-5-1), ranked No. 4 in Class AAA, won the Region 8-AAA championship by beating Class AAA’s No. 2 ranked team, Oconee County.
The Lady Eagles are winners of their last eight, seven of which were shutouts. They have averaged just over six runs a game during the winning streak, which began Sept. 23, and averaged five runs a game over the course of the season.
"You know, we just need to go in and play our game," Hall said. "We can’t play anybody else’s game and expect to win."
Having somewhat of a home-field advantage — the Lady Indians have to travel only 30 miles, and have played in tournaments at Lanier Point twice this season — is an added advantage according to Hall.
"It’s nice to get to sleep in your own bed," she said. "It also helps because we have such a great fan base and we know they’ll be there cheering."
With a trip to the state finals on the line, and a conclusion to the season a real possibility, a need could arise to push harder in practice or focus on opponent-specific skills.
But Hall had other ideas for the week of practice leading up to today’s game, "We haven’t changed anything at practice," she said. "We believe in what we do, and my girls believe they can beat anybody doing what we’ve done all season and that’s important — you have to believe."
White County (26-7), Class AAA’s eight-ranked team, took the same approach in preparing for today’s matchup with Stephens County (13-19-1).
With no game film to assess the Lady Indians exact style of play, Lady Warriors coach John Brown and his team have been focusing on themselves and are confident going in.
"We have played well against teams we haven’t known anything about because we just go play," Brown said.
"They beat Oconee, so they must be good but we’re just hoping to play the best we can and see where we fall."
An added confidence comes in having sophomore pitching sensation Stephanie Satterfield in the circle. Satterfield is 17-3 with an ERA of 0.75 on the season and has recorded 144 strikeouts.
"We have a fairly good pitcher," Brown said, "which is nice, but I wish we had one more (ace).
"It’s going to be tough to pitch Stephanie (Satterfield) the entire weekend. She keeps us in ballgames and gives us a chance to win everytime she pitches."
Satterfield also does her part at the plate leading the team with 33 hits and a .465 batting average. Emma Cummins and Krista Woody follow suit batting .455 and .433 respectively.
"This group is really loose," Brown said, "and they play that way. Practice has been good and the girls are excited.
"We are just going to go out there and do our part, adjust and then see what happens."