ALBANY -- Then there were 10...
But what a 10, a perfect 10 -- a 10 they won't forget at Sherwood Christian Academy.
"This is not my most talented team,'' said Sherwood softball coach Greg Richter, who has been at Sherwood for eight years. "But it's my best team with what they have been able to accomplish.''
He means it.
Richter has had just 10 girls on his team all season. No bench, no backups, no complaints. Just 10 kids who somehow pulled together, stuck together and came together to make this such a special season.
And it's not over. Sherwood, which had only seven players at the end of last season, and only nine this summer, is on its way to the playoffs.
"We can go all the way,'' said catcher Kristina McNutt, a junior who believes this year's team is closer and works harder than in years past. After all, they only had each other.
"It made us play better, because we're the only ones at our position. There was no one to back us up, just us,'' said McNutt, who had to move from third base to behind the plate.
Everybody had to move to make the Rubik's Cube formula work. Of the five returners, the only one who stayed put was pitcher Anna Laine Brock.
But moving wasn't the big problem. Not moving too much was a bigger concern.
"It definitely put pressure on us to make sure we stayed healthy,'' said Kaylee Dixon, a senior who went from first base to shortstop this season. "There were a lot of fun things we didn't do.''
The players avoided doing anything that might be a risk factor -- even going to the lake was ruled out, because you might get hurt while water skiiing or a number of things. The players simply altered their lives as much as they could to try to stay healthy.
The kids said it was worth it, said it was one of those all-for-one, one-for-all type sacrifices that just came with the territory this season. That's just one of the reasons Richter feels the way he does about this team.
"If you would have told me we would have a shot at being in a playoff to win the region, I would have said no way,'' Richter said. "But we've had a great year. The pitching has been real good, the chemistry has been great and we've had kids step up. We've come a long way.''
The Sherwood 10 plays in a first-place three-way tiebreaker today in Cordele to decide the seeding in Region 1-AAA, but no matter what happens today the Lady Eagles are in the playoffs. Southland plays Tiftarea at 2 p.m. and Sherwood gets the winner. If the Lady Eagles win that game, they will be the top seed from the region.
There were a lot of bumps and bruises along the way, but the 10 has hung together, especially Brock, who has been playing with a pulled quad for the last three weeks. She suffered the injury when she scored the winning run against Southland.
"I'm still playing, but coach Greg won't let me hit,'' Brock said. "All I can do is pitch.''
That's the understatement of the year at Sherwood, where Brock has been a force on the mound. She's only a freshman, but Brock has a 14-4 record and a 0.99 ERA. She has struck out 134 batters in just 92 innings. She has thrown two no-hitters and a pair of one-hitters this season. Yes, "all she can do is pitch."
Brock was an all-state pitcher as an eighth grader, and when she was in the lineup this year she was hitting .380. There's hope she might be back in the lineup if Sherwood makes a run at state.
And why not? There's a toughness to this team, in part because they're so close and in part because no one gave them a chance -- and with that toughness comes confidence and more.
"When we walk off the field we don't want to have any regrets,'' Dixon said.
Sherwood is 15-4, including three one-run losses, for the season -- a season in which no one would have given the Lady Eagles a hope to even compete, let alone be a powerhouse.
"We have come within an injury or two of shutting the whole thing down,'' Richter said. They had only nine girls just before school started. Kaitelyn Gilliam was the 10th girl on the team. She had to come back from a foot injury this summer to give Sherwood a full squad of 10 players.
"No one expected us to do anything, but we set our goals high because we were considered the underdog,'' said Dixon, who leads the team in doubles, triples and hitting with a .420 average. She has also knocked in 22 runs.
Third baseman Payton Couch leads the Lady Eagles with 28 RBI. She has hit two homers and is batting .321. Richter has seen it all season, one kid after another stepping up and helping the team. The fact no one gave them a chance, and the idea they might not have a team only inspired the Sherwood kids.
"It made us want it more,'' said McNutt, who is hitting .389 with 25 RBI. "Everyone is working toward the same goal. It brought us closer together.''
It had to.
"I think we're better this year because we have more team unity,'' Brock said. "We're not thinking about ourselves. We're thinking about the team.''
And what's better than that? That's a perfect 10 -- just like Sherwood.