The Buford Lady Wolves are back in very familiar surroundings, but they’re preparing to utilize an unfamiliar strategy.
The five-time defending Class AA softball state champions are looking to reach the pinnacle of Class AAA not with the well-worn method of throwing a pair of starting pitchers, but by using one dominant ace.
Lady Wolves sophomore Bria Bush is up for the challenge.
“I’ve been working all my life to pitch as much as I can,” she said. “And I cut back on my training later in the season to make sure I had the strength to get through the important parts of state.”
Last season, splitting the duties with fellow freshman Tessa Daniels, Bush compiled 17 wins and went 2-0 in Columbus as Buford rallied from an early trip to the losers bracket to win a fifth title.
This season, with Daniels missing most of the season, returning from injury and only recently getting back in the circle, Bush has gone 18-2 after winning two games against Franklin County in the second round to clinch a return trip to Columbus and the double-elimination state championships bracket. She has struck out 131 batters in 116 innings with an ERA of 1.12.
Now, she’ll be asked to start as many of the games as possible, if not all, as the Lady Wolves (28-3) look for a first-ever Class AAA title.
“We’ve got a little more experience in the circle (than last year), but not two frontline pitchers like we’ve done the previous five years,” Buford coach Tony Wolfe said. “We’ve never had to have one pitcher be dominant, but we feel like she can do it.”
Bush said she’s been gearing herself up for the challenge for a while now.
“When we were so deep into the season and (Daniels) wasn’t back, I knew there was no way for her to come back and be what she was by the time state came,” Bush said. “She’s always there if we need her, and also the other pitchers — if I need it — I know they’re there for me.”
Wolfe said that Daniels, last season’s state championship game winner who pitched two innings in Round 1 and two more against Franklin County, will be available to pitch a few innings here and there, possibly to come in relief in a tight situation.
But the circle will, for the most part, belong to Bush.
If the Lady Wolves perform in Columbus like they did in 2007, 2008 and 2010 — staying in the winner’s bracket and needing just four wins to claim the title — then Bush, who said she routinely pitches doubleheaders in travel ball, would not be too taxed.
But if Buford falls into the losers bracket early, like last season when the Lady Wolves had to win three games Saturday, Bush will need a little help.
“If we get in the losers bracket all bets are off, but if we stay in the winners bracket, Bria could start all four games,” Wolfe said.
The key then is to make her innings as stress free as possible and not to give up outs by making errors, said Wolfe, who added that the coaching staff keeps an eye on pitch count, innings and feedback from the pitcher and coaches to evaluate how much a pitcher can take.
“Having never had to do it this way, we’re going to be learning as well,” Wolfe said. “We feel like having two starting pitchers is an advantage, so it’s kind of the great unknown for us; what can we get out of Tessa, and how much more can Bria pitch?
“I know she’s one of the best pitchers around.”
Thursday, Bush and the rest of the Wolves get their first test in Columbus when they face the Region 2-AAA champion Jackson (26-8) at 2:30 p.m. If they win they would face the winner of Chapel Hill and Jackson County at 7:45 p.m., giving Bush her first chance at pitching a state tournament doubleheader.
“We could be playing Jackson all day,” Wolfe said with a laugh.
The Region 8-AAA champion Lady Panthers (21-15-1) were one game short of the final eight last season. This year the team, led by pitcher Peyton Sorrells, Jessica Baker and others, looks to take advantage and finally break through.
Another area team, Lumpkin County, is back in Columbus for the first time in 10 years as the Lady Indians open against South Effingham this afternoon.
In the Class AAAA bracket, Lumpkin County slipped by Marist 4-3 and 4-2 in the second round to advance.
Buford needed three games to get past North Murray in Round 2, with Bush leading the team to a 9-1 win in the decisive third game. Jordan Deep, one of the top players on this year’s team along with Daniels, blasted a three-run home run in the win.
Coasting to an easy win is a recipe the Lady Wolves would like to see repeated in Columbus, and a good way to take a lot of the pressure off Bush, as opposed to pitching in tight games each time out.
But regardless of how the games play out, Wolfe is confident in his ace, having seen her take the extra load this season with ease.
“She’s been really good ever since she’s walked in the door as a freshman,” he said. “Bria’s had to pick up a little bigger load this year, and she’s done well.”
And whether Bush needs to be relieved during a possible three-game Saturday stretch, or if the Lady Wolves make it easy and keep winning, Wolfe likes the abilities of his young but experienced team — including seven starters who started in Columbus last season — to make another long run.
“Hopefully our kids are prepared for whatever path we take,” he said.