BUFORD — As things change, they stay the same.
That’s the case for the top-ranked Lady Wolves of Buford High, who begin the defense of their Class AA softball title Thursday against Dodge County in Columbus.
“It’s a brand new group of players,” Buford coach Tony Wolfe said. “We’re different, but there’s a lot of things that are still the same.
“We take a lot of pride in pitching and defense and think that’s how you win,” he added. “We’ve been doing really well with that this year.”
Yes they have.
With a 30-2-1 record, the Lady Wolves have been ranked No. 1 in Class AA for all but one week this season (Calhoun High occupied the top spot for the week of Oct. 6), they cruised through Region 6-AA with a perfect 6-0 record, and they steamrolled through last weekend’s state sectionals, beating their three opponents (Crawford County, Jefferson and North Oconee) by a combined score of 17-0.
That domination has put the team in a fairly unfamiliar position. Last year they won the title as an underdog. This year they head to Columbus as the overwhelming favorite.
“Now we have the target on our back,” said Buford senior shortstop Whitney Holman. “Every team that we play they’re going to have their best nine out there.”
Knowing that, the Lady Wolves are aware of what needs to be done.
“We definitely have to come out with our ‘A’ game,” Holman said. “Teams can do the exact same thing we did last year to GAC, so we definitely have to stay poised the whole game.”
Poised is what last year’s Lady Wolves were when they beat the No. 1-ranked Greater Atlanta Christian in the semifinals of the state tournament. Mired in a scoreless tie for seven innings, Ashley Razey hit an eighth-inning grand slam to lift Buford to a 4-0 win, sending the team to the finals where it beat Berrien County 8-1.
The win gave Buford it’s first state championship for a girls’ program, and set the foundation for this year’s success.
But these aren’t last year’s Lady Wolves.
Razey and three other starters from last year’s championship team graduated. Another moved out of state. Instead of rebuilding, Buford reloaded.
Melissa Dickie and Karly Fullem, both sophomores, lead the Lady Wolves in the pitcher’s circle. Each pitcher carries a 14-1 record, and each has thrown a no-hitter this season. Fullem (1.00 ERA) leads the team with 102 strikeouts, while Dickie (99 Ks) leads the team with a paltry 0.61 ERA.
Youth is served in the batter’s box, as well.
Junior Alysha Rudnik leads the team in batting average (.506), on base percentage (.538), slugging percentage (.847), triples (eight), and RBIs (29). Freshman Lexi Overstreet is second in all but one of those categories (triples), but leads the team with 12 doubles on the year.
“From the top to the bottom of the order we don’t have a weakness,” said senior Brandi Hellemn, the team’s center fielder.
Her coach is pleasantly surprised at how quickly this year’s team became great.
“I really thought by the end of the year we’d have a good team,” Wolfe said. “But with so many young players, and so many new players, and with old players in different roles, I wasn’t sure how long it would take for us to come around.”
Wolfe credits the team’s entry in the Mill Creek Invitational (where it went 4-2 against some of the best softball programs in the state) as one of the reasons why his young team grew up so quickly.
“It tests us a lot more,” Wolfe said of the Mill Creek Invitational, as well as the Brookwood Tournament that the Lady Wolves compete in each year. “It gives us a great look at what we’re going to see in October when we see the best AA has to offer.”
This year that list includes No. 2 Calhoun (32-5), No. 8 Dodge County (24-7-1), and two schools that Buford is rather familiar, Blessed Trinity (22-14) and Lovett (20-15). Playing in the same region, Buford has already beaten Blessed Trinity twice this year (4-0 and 11-0) and Lovett once (6-0).
But Buford is not resting on its laurels.
“On any given day they’re all capable of beating us,” Wolfe said of the remaining seven teams in the state tournament. “We have to go out there and give it our best.
“You gotta have some mental and physical toughness when you play in these tournaments,” he added. “We’re going to have to display that again.”
If that happens, Buford could be coming home from Columbus with another state championship.
“That would be awesome,” Hellemn said about winning another title. “I think it would be just as exciting to win the first as it would be to become back-to-back state champs.”
Back-to-back state champs, something that the community of Buford is all too familiar with. Just don’t go putting the softball program in the same sentence with the football team that has won four titles since 2001.
Not yet any way.
“That’s pretty high cotton,” Wolfe said. “That’s rare air when you talk about Buford football. We certainly have a nice row of banners out there, and if we were to win another state title it would certainly add to it.
“I don’t think we’re at football lore yet,” he added. “But we’re working to get there.”