SYLVESTER -- Just before they left practice Tuesday, the kids on the Worth County softball team got together for one last message: "This is what we came here for.''
They meant it. Today's showdown against Eastside in the second round of the Class AAA state playoffs isn't just a benchmark game, because the winner goes to the Elite Eight in Columbus, it's the game Worth has been pointing to all season.
"This is what we've been playing for,'' Worth coach Russ Beard said Tuesday. "We've been talking about getting to the final eight in Columbus all year."
Beard then added: "Our girls know absolutely that this will be the game that makes or breaks our season. Nobody will remember we won 28 games if we don't get to Columbus.''
The Lady Rams are 28-2 and ranked No. 3 in the state coaches poll, but none of that will matter if they don't win the best-of-three series against Eastside, which begins today with a doubleheader at Worth with games at 4 p.m. and 6 p.m.
The Lady Rams can sweep their way to Columbus in one afternoon, but that's the kind of pressure that can get to the best of teams.
"Our kids are as loose as anyone,'' Beard said. "There was a lot of joking at practice on Tuesday. They know what this game means. They've worked all year to get here.''
And if that's not enough motivation for Worth, consider this: Two years ago when Worth made its first trip to Columbus for the Final Eight, it was Eastside that beat the Lady Rams in the opener.
"They had a real good pitcher,'' Beard said. "That pitcher is gone and this is a different team. But they played a tough schedule. Our team was mostly freshmen then, but they remember losing to them. We're excited about being in this game, and we're excited about playing them.''
Eastside (18-15) is the No. 2 seed from Region 4, but had no trouble sweeping Mary Persons in the opening round of the state tournament. Amanda Hawkins belted two homers against Mary Persons.
"She's got 10 home runs,'' Beard said. "In North Georgia they like to slap the ball and play small ball, but the middle of their lineup has some good hitters. We're going to have to do what we've done all year. We've got to play defense and hit the ball.''
Worth can hit with anyone. Haley Ellis is batting .629 with 12 homers and 64 RBI, and her twin sister Heather is batting .557 with five homers and 29 RBI. Kimmy Lee is batting .537 with three homers and 20 RBI, and has stolen 19 bases and scored 55 runs this season. Lauren Potts, who will pitch the opener, is 9-1 on the mound and hitting .442 with two homers and 34 RBI.
Eastside's Kenya Shakoor is batting .441 with 12 stolen bases and Erin Steele is batting .356 with 24 steals, and the team is hitting .296. They know how to score runs, and this could be a knock-down, drag-out, 10-9 kind of game.
"That's fine with me as long as we have the 10,'' Beard said. "I honestly think our kids are ready for whatever they've got. I think we can play with anybody.''
Worth, the No. 1 seed from Region 1-AAA, will have the home-field advantage, and big crowds in Sylvester have been showing up for the postseason games.
"It's a lot more fun than it was two years ago when we went to the Final Eight because we're at home,'' Beard said. "We were on the road for all the games two years ago, and we've been at home for both rounds this time.
"The kids were talking about how this will be our last home game. They were all saying that we'll be
playing in Columbus next week.''