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COLUMN: Can't help but to feel for Randolph Southern softball

Albany Herald Sports Editor Danny Aller

Albany Herald Sports Editor Danny Aller

Like so many other sports teams in Southwest Georgia who've been oh, so close to the crowning achievement of winning a state title during my almost five years as sports editor in Albany -- only to finish second -- it pains me every time I have to write a headline like I did Thursday night about the girls from the Randolph Southern softball squad falling short of the GISA Class A State Championship.

But this one bothered me a little more than most.

And it wasn't because this tiny underdog school way out in the peaceful rolling farmlands of Shellman, which has a total of 33 girls walking its halls, nearly did the improbable by winning their first state title, only to have its fairy tale season end the way it did.

And it wasn't because I think second-year head coach Rand Ragan is as nice a guy as there is out there coaching high school sports, and I hated to see his dream of making history -- and do so with his daughter, sophomore star Madison, leading the way -- go unrealized.

No, it had more to do with how the final week of the season played out for the Lady Patriots, and how a fairly ridiculous rule change by the GISA a year ago seems, in my eyes, to have cost these young ladies from Shellman a priceless piece of hardware and a glorious story to one day tell their kids.

The long and short of it is that Randolph dominated its way through the bracket and reached the finals unbeaten by first knocking off the defending state champ Briarwood in the Final Four, advancing them to the championship -- well, sort of.

On the other side of the bracket was Thomas Jefferson, which beat Crisp Academy in its Final Four matchup to advance to the championship -- again, sort of.

It seems pretty cut and dry, right? RS vs. TJ for all the marbles. Best 2-out-3.

But not so fast.

Because the GISA curiously changed the format last year to make the Final Four double elimination, rather the traditional, win-and-you're-in, lose-you-go-home format that sports far and wide have operated under since the beginning of time, Thomas Jefferson and Randolph Southern were first made to play a single game to determine which school would earn home-field advantage for the actual state final best-of-three series a week later. (Did I mention all these games were played in Dublin -- some two hours from Randolph Southern, Crisp, Briarwood and Thomas Jefferson? That's not exactly home-field advantage for anyone if you ask me. So the winning team gets to bat last in the first and third game, if there is a third game -- big whoop).

But I digress.

Randolph crushed TJ in this winners' bracket game, 8-0, behind a one-hitter from Madison Ragan. This forced TJ into the losers' bracket, where it awaited the winner of the first two teams in the losers' bracket, Crisp and Briarwood. Crisp beat Briarwood, then TJ beat the Lady Wildcats again, allowing it another shot at Randolph.

Here's where my beef begins.

While I see no true value -- or sensible reason -- of even having the Final Four in a state championship setting be involved in any type of double-elimination format to begin with (after all, it's rare for any sport, at any level, to operate in such a manner to determine its champion), I'm OK with Randolph Southern having to beat Thomas Jefferson one more time before the Lady Patriots are declared the queens of Class A.

I repeat, I'm OK with Randolph Southern having to beat Thomas Jefferson ONE more time.

I am not, however, OK with making Randolph Southern -- or any other team, in any other classification, in any other part of the state -- play a best-of-three series against a team it has already beaten once, especially since Randolph still had not lost during its march to the title.

But the GISA changed the rules a year ago so that once the final two teams are determined through this bizarre double-elimination format, the new rules, according to the GISA website, are such that, "teams advancing will play a best 2 out of 3 series for the State Championship with both teams beginning the day with a 0-0 record."

Wait ... what?

So even though Randolph Southern already beat Thomas Jefferson once, now it would have to do it again -- and then again?

That's not only unfair, it's just plain dumb.

And here's where the GISA needs to reconsider: When the teams reconvened in Dublin a week later for the actual state championship, Randolph should've only had to defeat Thomas Jefferson once -- just once more -- to be crowned state champs. And if Thomas Jefferson truly wanted to become state champ, it should've had to earn it the way any team emerging from the losers' bracket should: beat Randolph twice -- and twice in a row.

The Lady Pats won Game 1 easily, 9-4, on Thursday -- and that's where it should've ended.

Throw the gloves in the air. Bring the microphone out to the pitcher's diamond. Hand over the trophy to the girls from Shellman. Give them a standing ovation. And congratulate them on a job well done.

But because the GISA last year mandated with its rule change that "Teams advancing will play a best 2 out of 3 series for the State Championship with both teams beginning the day with a 0-0 record" -- I'm repeating it because it's just so ridiculous -- that wasn't the case.

It meant Randolph wasn't done after beating Thomas Jefferson for a second straight time -- now it had to go do it for a third time.

As for TJ? Just two wins for them would do, and once they got those two wins that Randolph already had against them, they could steal the champions ceremony right out from under them.

And that's exactly what they did.

Thomas Jefferson won Game 2, 6-4, and routed Randolph, 8-2, in Game 3.

It was over. The title was theirs.

"Under the old format we would have taken it," Rand Ragan told The Herald on Thursday night after the loss. "They changed the format last year, and it didn't work in our favor."

No it didn't, nor did it work in Westfield's favor the first year the rule change was implemented last season. Westfield beat Stratford, then Stratford went down to the losers' bracket, came back and won.

And according to Tommy Whittle, vice president of the GISA -- who I reached Friday on his cell phone to discuss this matter -- these new rules were made for a reason.

"In the old format, we'd get 16 teams together in one place, play down to four in one day and then have those four come back a week later for two best-of-three series to determine our champion," Whittle told me. "But because that (big grouping of 16 teams) was taking so long to finish -- and teams were having to play six or seven games in a day and not getting home until 1 a.m., or later, sometimes -- it got to be a problem. We wanted to find a better way to do things so we could get teams home at a decent hour and not have them traveling late at night."

Oh, I see ... so because you wanted to get young teenage girls -- who surely aren't known for having endless energy and just hate staying up late -- in bed a few hours earlier on a weekend, the entire system had to be changed?

I should also mention that in our conversation I learned that softball is the only sport the GISA changed the format for, which makes even less sense. At least be consistent. I understand it can't, and shouldn't, be done for football for a variety of sensible reasons, but there's no reason to do it for softball and not for the GISA's other tournament-format sports like baseball, basketball and volleyball.

Furthermore, if the GISA insists on having this best-of-three format in place, why in the world do they have these softball teams playing ALL three games in one day?

It's insane.

Randolph's and TJ's series began at 2 p.m. on Thursday, and with each game taking approximately two hours -- with a half hour break in between -- that means if the series goes three games, like this one did, the earliest any squad is getting home is around 11 p.m. -- or maybe midnight if, God forbid, these teams actually have the audacity to be hungry on their way home after exerting tons of energy for seven hours and stop for something to eat.

"If they stop for something to eat, then that's their call," Whittle argued. "Still, getting home at midnight is better than 1 a.m. or later."

Is it?

I mean, they're still traveling late at night with a two-hour trip, or longer, home from Dublin, where the GISA insists this tournament be played.

Whittle then said that "financially it didn't make sense" for the GISA to split the games up and play two in one day, then one the next because softball tournaments -- and the small crowds of fans they typically attract -- don't cover the costs it takes to put them on, and "having to pay mileage and salaries for umpires to come back for an extra day" would make even less fiscal sense, he said.

Whittle also admitted that baseball, basketball and football are the only three sports where the GISA makes any money. So that must mean the GISA is doing whatever it can to save money on the back end of the so-called minor sports to make the private-school organization as profitable as possible. And let's not forget, GISA state baseball series, under a different format, currently plays two games in one day and an "if" game the following day. So that means the GISA is willing to pay those umpire's salaries and travel expenses to come back an extra day for baseball, but not for softball, just because one sport turns a profit and the other doesn't?

So I guess, like many things in this world these days, it's more about the bottom line than what's fair.

Of course, other than Rand Ragan's one comment to The Herald lamenting how the new format seems to have bit Randolph Southern in the butt this season, compared to the old format that existed up until this past year, you won't hear him complaining about how this all played out.

Why? Because, according to Whittle, the rule change last year was not only proposed by a committee of softball coaches from all classifications around the state, it was "almost unanimously voted on and approved by the coaches and then their headmasters," he said.

"This was the way the softball coaches, for the most part, wanted it," Whittle said. "There was a few descending votes, but it was nearly unanimous."

My guess is that those few coaches who weren't on board saw scenarios happening down the road exactly like the ones that have taken place with Westfield and Randolph Southern. And I would also venture to guess that if Randolph and Westfield initially bought into this and voted for it, they're now having buyer's remorse.

If nothing else, after Thomas Jefferson won Game 3 on Thursday -- making the two teams' tally an even 2-2 against each other dating back to a week earlier -- they should've played a fifth and deciding game that night.

Heck, what's one more after you've already played three? Then, at least, people like me looking from the outside in would have one less reason to poke holes in an obviously flawed system.

My managing editor at The Herald, Danny Carter, debated all of this and more with me Thursday night after our deadline, and he posed this question: "If the roles were reversed and Randolph Southern had emerged from the losers' bracket and beaten Thomas Jefferson -- and the rule had worked for them, rather than against them -- would you still feel the same way?"

It was a good question, but I didn't have to give it much thought before answering, and when I did, my reply was, "From a journalist's standpoint in an attempt to craft a good story about the underdog coming from the losers' bracket to beat the big, bad unbeaten champ, I would've written it just like that. But would I still think it was unfair? Absolutely."

Whittle, meanwhile, didn't have a whole lot of sympathy for Randolph, or Westfield, or anyone else this could happen to in the future.

"I understand what you're saying about Randolph having already beaten them once before the final series, but when they get to the final series, they're both 0-0, yet the (team from the winners' bracket) has a distinct advantage by being the home team in the first and third games," he said before adding: "But the bottom line is this: Whatever team wins the championship still has to go out and play ball and win the game, and Randolph did that in the first game. They looked great and played well, but then they kind of fell apart from there. It's not the system's fault.

"After all, there can't be but one winner."

You know what, Mr. Whittle? You're right. At least we can agree on that.

But here's where we differ: That winner should've been Randolph Southern.