Led by head coach Rand Ragan, back row, center, the Randolph Southern softball team will make its second straight appearance in the GISA state championship series today in Dublin, only this time the Lady Pats are playing for the AA title against Flint River after GISA combined Class A and AA into one classification this offseason. (firstname.lastname@example.org)
SHELLMAN — The best GISA Class A softball team in Georgia resides in Shellman on the diamond at Randolph Southern.
But no one will ever know it.
What would have been a great tug-at-your-heart story of redemption and coming back from tears to joy has turned into a tale of the ultimate underdog trying to win it all.
Meet the Randolph Southern Lady Patriots, a team of kids who lost the Class A state title last year and left the field in tears after dropping the third game of the best-of-three title series against Thomas Jefferson.
The idea was to storm back into the title game and win the Class A title this season.
One problem: The GISA decided to eliminate Class A softball.
That’s right, Randolph Southern, one of the smallest Class A schools in GISA, had to compete with much larger Class AA schools this season.
Well ... guess what?
The Lady Patriots are right back in the state title series, upsetting the state with another memorable season. Now all they have to do is beat powerhouse Flint River today in Dublin. And no one outside of Shellman is giving Randolph Southern a chance.
There is nothing fair about this matchup, but don’t tell the kids at Randolph Southern.
“We’ve got a school with 115 (students), and they’re a school of 342,’’ said senior catcher Parker Rigsby. “But there’s nothing we can do about it, so we don’t worry about it. Just play.’’
That’s the attitude the Lady Pats take to the diamond today in Dublin, where the best-of-three series starts at noon. If needed, all three games will be played today.
“We’re the underdog,’’ senior right fielder Beth Clark said at practice Thursday. “But the best thing they can do is to come into the game with a big head.’’
Flint River, which went to the Final Four last year and won the state AA title two years ago, already beat Randolph Southern, 11-0, in the Final Four last weekend. But Randolph rallied to stay alive with two wins against Piedmont in the double-elimination tournament to advance to the title series.
“They’re really strong,” Randolph Southern coach Rand Ragan said of Flint River. “Their shortstop has already committed to Tennessee and is one of the best softball players in Georgia, and they’ve got a couple of more kids going to college.’’
Flint River is 20-5 and has won 15 of its last 16 games, and the Lady Wildcats are ranked No. 1 in the GISA state poll. Randolph Southern (19-4) is unranked. The Lady Pats know the odds are stacked against them.
But who better to pitch in the ultimate underdog game than a kid they call “Rocky”?
That’s Lady Pats ace Madison Ragan’s nickname, and she’ll be on the mound today trying to go the distance.
“I’m excited about being the underdog,’’ said Ragan, the coach’s daughter. “I’m usually nervous, and it’s stressful before games. But I’m not nervous (this time), and I’m really excited about playing them.
“If we win, it will be epic.’’
Ragan is pretty epic herself.
She’s batting .749 with nine home runs and has driven in 36 runs in 23 games, but that’s the tip of the iceberg. On the mound, “Rocky” is unrivaled.
She went 18-3 this season with a 0.34 ERA. After giving up two runs in the first game of the year, she didn’t give up another earned run over the next 14 games. No one in Southwest Georgia wants to face her. She’s struck out 232 batters in only 117 innings.
“I like the underdog role,’’ she said Thursday. “I’m proud we’re a small school going up against a bigger school and a powerhouse team. I’m excited. I do feel like we have a chance. I feel like the pressure is on them.’’
There are a ton of leaders outside of Ragan on this team. Braylie Blanton is hitting .458 with four homers, and Madison Langford is hitting .458. Morgan Lumpkin is batting .419 and Rigsby is batting .412.
The kids at Randolph have put the last week’s loss to Flint River behind them.
“We hit their pitcher,’’ senior first baseman Gabi Jackson said. “We just made stupid mistakes running the bases. And you know what they say: ‘It’s hard to beat a good team twice.’ ”
The Randolph kids are confident. It’s been a fun ride this year, despite having to play bigger schools.
The team is more close-knit this year, and all the kids said they get along better. They also share the pain of losing in the state title game. And then there’s Morgan Lumpkin, a sophomore second baseman who joined the team this year.
“I think the chemistry on this year’s team is better,’’ Rand Ragan said. “They seem closer, and one reason is Morgan Lumpkin. She keeps everybody loose. She’s always saying something funny. She’s hilarious. We love her. She keeps us laughing and keeps us loose.’’
Lumpkin is a bit off the wall and loves to tell jokes, not to mention she will just scream at times for no apparent reason, breaking up everyone on the team.
“It’s because I’m nuts,’’ said Lumpkin, who threatened to scream “Go Narnia!” to prove her point.
She didn’t have to. Just the threat brought laughs form the Randolph Southern girls.
It’s a different team — and arguably a better team than last year’s state runner-up.
They have three seniors on this year’s team as opposed to one a year ago, and the chemistry is better than ever.
“We’ve grown up together,’’ Jackson said. “And we’ve developed real good chemistry. We know each other, and we trust each other to do the job. I think that makes us want to win even more, because we got so close last year and didn’t win it.’’
There are a lot of reasons this year’s team is better than the one that just missed a state title a year ago.
“We’re more experienced,’’ Rand Ragan said. “And we hit the ball better. And it did help to have that big-game experience last year. The goal was to get back to the state title game and win it. It was disappointing when we found out we were not playing in Single A, but they accepted the challenge.’’
It is an uneven playing field. But there’s nothing the Lady Pats can do about it.
“From the first day of practice we said our goal was to get back to the state title game,’’ Rigsby said.
And now that they are here?
Nothing left to do now, said Rigsby, but “just play.’’