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Dancing with the stars

The Randolph Southern softball team, coached by Rand Ragan, center right, meets Thomas Jefferson today in the GISA Class A softball state title series in Dublin. The Lady Patriots defeated Thomas Jefferson in the Final Four on Saturday. (Photo by joe.bellacomo@albanyherald.com)

The Randolph Southern softball team, coached by Rand Ragan, center right, meets Thomas Jefferson today in the GISA Class A softball state title series in Dublin. The Lady Patriots defeated Thomas Jefferson in the Final Four on Saturday. (Photo by joe.bellacomo@albanyherald.com)

SHELLMAN -- It's a promise, a legitimate promise.

At least that's what Randolph Southern softball coach Rand Ragan said. He has vowed to dance on the diamond today if his kids win the GISA Class A state championship in Dublin, where the Lady Patriots meet Thomas Jefferson for the title.

No, Ragan isn't auditioning for Dancing With The Stars, he just wants to see the stars of his team do a little dancing today.

After every win, the Shellman girls break out in dance to celebrate.

They've been dancing a lot lately.

"I don't dance with them,'' the coach said. "And I'm sure they appreciate me not dancing with them. But if we win the state title, I'll dance. I'll do a jig right on the pitcher's mound.''

Get those cameras and smart phones ready, because the Lady Patriots are good enough to win it all. They're 18-4 and playing better right now than at any time in the season -- a season that started with little expectation and one that has led them to the brink of history.

"Everyone thought because we lost two seniors and lost our starting catcher that we wouldn't be worth anything this year,'' said Ragan's daughter, Madison Ragan, a sophomore who leads the team on the mound and at the plate.

All the kids got that ugly message early.

"At the beginning of the year when I heard all the negative comments I just wanted to prove them wrong,'' said Alana McCook, a freshman who plays second and pitches.

If these kids had a chip on their shoulder, they have not only knocked it off, but blasted it right out of the ball park.

They not only reached the Final Four for the first time in the school's history, but they swept their way to the state final, beating defending state champ Briarwood, 2-1, and then beating Thomas Jefferson, 8-0, in six innings.

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Randolph Southern’s Gabi Jackson covers first base during Wednesday’s softball practice in Shellman. Jackson and her Lady Patriot teammates will play for a GISA Class A state title today.

Yes, that Thomas Jefferson, the same team the Lady Patriots must beat two more times to claim the title. GISA changed the format last year, and the Final Four is now a double-elimination tournament. After losing to Randolph Southern, Thomas Jefferson fought its way back in the loser's bracket to reach today's best-of-three series championship.

At least Randolph Southern will go into today's title showdown with some confidence, and with a team that has not only surprised Rand Ragan, but has shocked him.

"It's just so surreal, and it gets more and more surreal,'' he said. "In the middle of the season, I wouldn't have given you a nickel for our chances.''

He loves this team.

"They are insane,'' he said of his kids during practice on Wednesday. "Absolutely insane. They're crazy. We gave them their meds (before The Albany Herald showed up to interview them). We gave them a double dose.''

He really does love them.

"They're schizophrenic, just a schizo team,'' he joked. "Their alter ego has kicked in and we've blasted other teams (in the playoffs), and you're talking about the best teams in the state. Before, they had a tendency to self-destruct. They didn't have a lot of work ethic in practice, and they didn't seem to be focused. But that has changed, and changed big-time.

"They have come together as a team. It wasn't just a couple of players contributing, it's everyone. A light definitely came on in the second round of state. It was astonishing to watch. It was unbelievable for me to behold.''

McCook knows why.

"I think it hit us that we are capable of making history,'' she said.

Think about how far this program has come. Randolph Southern had never even won a girls softball region title until last year, and now Rand's "schizo" team is on the verge of winning it all.

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Randolph Southern pitcher Madison Ragan scoops up a ground ball during Wednesday's softball practice in Shellman.

"I don't think we believed in each other,'' said Gabi Jackson, a junior first baseman. "Now we do. We've gotten a lot closer. We've bonded together.''

That bond is magical and has found its way to every girls' glove. Rand Ragan still can't believe how much better his team is in the field.

"These girls can hit, but the amazing thing is the way we have been playing defense,'' he said. "Earlier in the year we were making 10-plus errors a game. And in the Final Four, I think we made two errors in two games.

"I think it's focus,'' he added. "They finally decided to concentrate. They know what to do when the ball is hit to them. All of a sudden the light came on, and it came on pretty bright.''

The whole team has been shining. Madison leads the Lady Patriots in hitting with a .742 batting average, and she's belted six homers and driven in 28 runs this season, but four other girls are hitting better than .300, including catcher Brittany Holbrook, the team's only senior who is hitting .400 with a homer and 18 RBI.

Jackson, McCook and Beth Clark, a junior outfielder who came to R-S from Early County this year, are all hitting .300 or better. Sophomores Elizabeth Lumpkin, Braylie Blanton and Dana McCarter are all hitting right at .300, and freshman Madison Langford has been on fire in the state playoffs.

Parker Rigsby, who was one of the team leaders last year at catcher, has had to miss the entire season because of knee surgery to repair a torn ligament in her left knee. She's part of that bond. She hasn't missed a game, which tells you just about everything you need to know about how these kids feel about each other.

Rigsby's confident the Lady Patriots can win it all. She's just not sure if she can dance if they celebrate.

"I don't think I've been cleared to dance,'' joked Rigsby, a junior.

When the Lady Patriots board the bus today for Dublin they'll take a lot of confidence with them. That's what winning the Final Four did for these kids.

"When we got there (Final Four), we realized we were facing the best teams in the state,'' Jackson said. "And we had to step up.''

They did.

"When we got there we knew we were playing with the big dogs,'' Clark said. "And when we left, we were the big dog.''

That's confidence.

They're confident every time Madison Ragan takes the mound -- and why not? She can dominate any team she faces. They call her "Rocky" and it's not because she always goes the distance on the mound. Madison just loved the Rocky movies so much when she was growing up, the nickname stuck. She even had one of those cardboard cutouts of Rocky in her room.

Now she's two wins away from delivering the knockout punch and becoming the champ.

She threw three no-hitters and four one-hitters in the regular season and had an earned run average below one run per game while averaging almost two strikeouts a game.

She's been just as tough to beat in the playoffs. In the last four games, Rocky has given up just three hits -- two singles and a bunt single -- and no earned runs. She has struck out 32 batters in those games, including 12 in six innings in a one-hitter against Thomas Jefferson.

"When she's on the mound it gives me a lot of confidence,'' Clark said. "Because she is someone who is so fast and has so much accuracy. I'm never nervous when she's on the mound.''

Rocky feels the same way about her defense.

"I've never played on a team that played defense the way we played (in the Final Four),'' she said. "I was just daring the batter to hit the ball. I didn't care if they hit it or not because of our defense.''

Blame her for the crazy dancing, too. The goofy dancing has become a team tradition, and you can thank Madison Ragan for starting it. She started dancing after wins, and the other kids just jumped in and joined the fun. Now everybody knows when they win, it's time to dance.

"I just like to dance when I'm happy,'' she said. "When I get happy the moves just flow through me. When we win, I'm happy.''

Maybe everyone in Shellman will dance a little bit if the Lady Patriots win the title.

"I think if we win, it will make the community proud,'' Madison Ragan said. "And it will make our school proud.''

Her father may joke about his "schizo" team and "the meds" they need, but he knows just how once-in-a-lifetime this group of young ladies and this season are.

"This is a special group,'' he said. "We have about 33 girls in the whole school, and this team has only one senior. And we are playing for the state title. It's surreal, and it's exciting. I'm so proud of them.''

It's been a long road, full of doubt and haters along the way, but somehow the Shellman kids have not only gotten better, but grown a lot closer on a journey that has led them to the edge of history.

"It would mean the world to me if we won,'' McCook said. "I'll cry.''

And Rand Ragan will dance ...