Take a time machine trip to one year ago. The three local teams still playing softball after the region tournaments were Dalton, North Murray and Northwest Whitfield.
For a while during the 2012 season, the landscape seemed to be shifting with the Lady Catamounts and Lady Mountaineers struggling in the regular season and other teams on the rise.
Then the region tournaments happened, and everything fell back into place.
“I don’t know what the explanation to that would be,” North Murray coach Daphne Winkler said. “There’s a different type of pressure in the region tournament. All season long, you’re really just playing for a seed in the region tournament. You really just want a good seed. ... It doesn’t matter until you get to the region tournament.”
Dalton and North Murray made big runs to join top-ranked Northwest again as the only three area schools advancing to the state playoffs. Similar to a year ago, the Lady Bruins coasted while the Lady Cats and Lady Mountaineers had to make strong runs. The only difference is Dalton and North Murray are No. 3 seeds this year instead of seeded fourth.
“Southeast has a good crop of freshman. Murray County, too,” Dalton coach Jeff McKinney said. “How do you explain going to Northwest and competing in a 2-0 loss and then going to Heritage and losing in three innings? It’s all about matchups.”
For now, the matchups are North Murray at Franklin County, Dalton traveling to Stone Mountain’s Redan and Northwest hosting South Atlanta in the first round. The best-of-three series begin with a doubleheader today, with the pending rubber game Thursday. Dalton plays at 2 and 4 p.m., while Northwest and North Murray will play in games at 5 and 7 p.m.
South Atlanta at Northwest
Northwest coach Jason Brooker wants to stress the obvious. Everyone is vulnerable once the playoffs begin.
Regardless of a 27-3 record, the Region 7-4A championship and the No. 1 ranking in the Class 4A Ga.PrepCountry.com coach’s poll, even the Lady Bruins are vulnerable.
And everyone is dangerous, including fourth-seeded South Atlanta.
The Lady Bruins will be at home against Region 6’s No. 4 seed, a team Brooker admitted he knows little about aside from seeing scores.
“I know they have scored a lot of runs and given up a bunch of runs,” he said.
He trusts his group of “mostly juniors and seniors,” who were on last year’s team that finished fourth in the state, to not overlook anyone as the journey for a return trip to Columbus begins.
“With this group, they’re pretty good about that,” said Brooker, who is in his first year as coach of the team. “I’ve got mostly juniors and seniors. They’ve been through it before. They have more experience than I do. I’ve said all I’ve needed to say. They know what to do and know to get ready.”
After rolling through the region tournament last week, and finishing with a pair of 3-2 wins against rival Heritage-Catoosa, Brooker said it’s good to get on the practice field. Monday was the first session in 11 days.
“We needed to get some reps in on defense,” he said. “We didn’t make all the plays we usually make (in the region tournament). That’s why we need to get some practice in. We can always hit better, too. If you let a couple in, then you need to drive a couple in.”
But a lot of the battle now, with the Lady Bruins the favorites, is mental. South Atlanta could be relaxed, playing with nothing to lose after a two-hour bus ride to Tunnel Hill.
“They’re going to be loose, I’d say,” Brooker said. “I tried to stress before the (region) tournament that everyone is 0-0. That’s kind of how it is now.”
Considering Northwest went through the season with the bull’s-eye, it may be nothing new.
“We get everybody’s best,” he said.
Dalton at Redan
McKinney believes having faced some of the state’s best pitching against North-west and fourth-ranked Heritage, among others during the region slate, will help when his Lady Cats (13-17) face teams from other areas.
It starts with Redan.
“I talked to two different coaches in their region,” he said. “They’ve made the playoffs the last two or three years and lost in the first round. They have a shortstop and third baseman, but their pitching isn’t as strong in North Georgia.”
Dalton faced Northwest’s Emily Boyd twice and Southeast’s Sydney Covington three times, among other strong pitchers.
“The pitching is better in North Georgia,” McKinney said. “It’s traditionally had some of the best pitching around.”
A first-round knockout from Oconee County sent Dalton home from the Class 3A playoffs last year, but the mentality of the team is different despite a similar late-season surge in the Region 7-4A tournament to keep playing.
“Last year we were just excited about making it,” McKinney said. “We went down and competed against Oconee County. We didn’t think we could win. I think our girls have a different mindset. You can just feel it. I don’t think our girls are just satisfied with being here. They want to go that step beyond.”
North Murray at Franklin County
The Lady Mountaineers (12-16) kept rising last year, pulling off an upset of Union County in the Class 2A playoffs before losing to Buford just one round shy of going to Columbus.
While the first-round foe is different, the next round could be the same.
Buford is the Region 7 No. 1 seed, and would be the team North Murray could face in the next round of the Class 3A playoffs if it wins.
“I’ve seen Buford this year,” Winkler said. “They’re not the team they’ve been. They’re good. They’re 24-2, but they’re not the team they were last year.”
But that potential matchup is still a week away. Right now, the focus is on Region 8’s No. 2 seed Franklin County (22-10).
“I’ve told the girls from the get-go, ‘I feel very confident. It doesn’t matter who we play, if our defense can be solid like we won three straight in the region tournament, we can beat anybody,’” Winkler said.
The key will be the defense.
Winkler said there is a big difference in quality and results when the team commits a lot of errors compared to a clean game behind the pitcher.
“That’s exactly the thing that will determine it,” she said. “In that one game in the region tournament, (third baseman) Megan (Pittman) had 12 putouts. We have to make the routine plays. If we make those, I think we can compete with anyone in the state.”