Led by head coach Bubber Birdsong, front row, right-center, the Baconton Charter softball team won its first state playoff game in school history, and now the Lady Blazers head to Columbus for the GHSA Class A Elite 8, which begins today.
COLUMBUS — If two out of three ain't bad, what's three out of eight?
It's a little unbelievable.
Not only are three softball teams from Region 1-A competing in the eight-team state tournament today in Columbus, but none of them — Baconton Charter, Miller County or Seminole County — has ever been to the state finals before.
"We never even won a game in the state playoffs until this year,'' said Baconton Charter coach Bubber Birdsong, whose kids play two-time defending state champ and No. 1-ranked Gordon Lee at 11 a.m. in the double-elimination tournament.
Miller County (23-9) plays Telfair County at 11, and Seminole County (29-4) meets Mt. Zion, Carroll at 11. If Miller and Seminole win, they face each other in the winner's bracket at 5 tonight. It would be the sixth time the two rivals have played this year.
"I don't want to play them again,'' Seminole coach Truette Johnson said. "Every game has been close. Imagine traveling all the way to Columbus to play a team that's 10 miles away.
Seminole went 6-0 in the region and beat Miller in the region tournament final. The Lady Indians have won 18 of their last 20 to get here, and talked about Columbus in august.
"That was one of our goals before the season started,'' Johnson said. "We talked about winning the region and getting to Columbus. In the 15 years since we've been playing fast-pitch, Seminole had never been to the Elite 8.''
They're buzzing Baconton over the Lady Blazers( 21-7), who didn't talk about Columbus in August, but just got better as the year went on.
"So far, so good,'' said Birdsong, whose team swept Johnson City, 5-2, 10-6, in the opening round to get to the Elite 8 double-elimination tournament. Unlike the Final Four in other sports, softball has the final eight or Elite 8 to decide the state championship.
"We just have great team chemistry and we won as a team,'' Birdsong said. "At some point or another somebody has stepped up. It's been a great team effort. We drew the No. 1 team in the state, but it's a blessing to be here. We're going to see what happens.''
Baconton Charter has five seniors who have led the way, shortstop Sadie Allen, third baseman Chelsea Childress, second baseman Jaycee Santos, first baseman Kelly Smith, and right fielder Mallory King. Centerfielder Kimmie Davis, a junior, can fly, and three freshmen, pitcher Gracie Cranford, catcher Ashley Meyer, and left fielder Kloe Daughtry have come into their own.
"Most of the team stuck together this summer and went to a tournament in Virginia,'' Birdsong said. "And they came together. The best thing about our team is we don't have any superstars. Sometimes it's the top of the lineup that gets the hits, and sometimes its the bottom.
"They have been to the playoffs every year, but never won a game so to win a game in the state playoffs and then make it to the Elite 8, that made it special.''
They feel the same way at Miller County, where the Lady Pirates started fast, and then went through a rough eight-game stretch.
"We went through a little slump,'' Miller coach Joni Williams said. "But we overcame it, got ourselves back together and everything has been rolling since. People who know this team are saying: 'Our Lady Pirates are back.' "
Miller, which lost four of its nine games to rival Seminole, stormed past Lanier in the first round of the playoffs, 6-1 and 13-3 in five innings to reach Columbus.
"They're pretty pumped up about the whole thing,'' Williams said. "This group is pretty special to me. My first year as the coach, the seniors on this team were freshmen. I've watched them mature and grow.''
Miller is led by junior shortstop Eden Cunningham, senior center fielder Morgan Mock. senior first baseman Ashley Mock, sophomore left fielder Taylor Mock, sophomore third baseman Toni Duncan, junior right fielder Leah McDowell and freshmen second baseman Kiley Harden and freshman catcher Courtney Johnson. Miller's two pitchers — senior Rachel Grimsley and junior Lynleigh Kaye Hall — have both been tough all year.
"They've got good chemistry. They're all in this together,'' Williams said. "They don't give up. They're going to fight.''
Seminole is the top-seeded team of the three after playing an incredibly tough schedule. The Lady Indians split with Class AAAAA Thomas County Central and Lee County and lost to Class AAAAA Bainbridge and once to Miller.
They scratch for runs, play good defense and rely on speed and pitching to win games. Jessi Helms, a junior, and Erika Roberts, a sophomore, set the tone on the mound.
"We play pretty good defense and we have real good pitching. We don't walk people. We make them earn it,'' Johnson said. "We're aggressive on the bases. We play small ball and find a way to score.''
Seminole swept Commerce, 4-0, 5-3, to get to Columbus, and after hitting only two home runs all year, Johnson figures his team is going play the same style of game to win today.
Senior Katrice Brown, the sister of former Herald John Reynolds Football Player of the year Chris Brown, is the catalyst. She plays a Gold-Glove level shortstop, bats in the leadoff spot and flies around the bases. Senior Miranda Kuhn roams center field and also is aggressive on the base paths to give Seminole a quick-hit 1-2 punch. Kassi Herring, a junior catcher, and Shymeshia Hopkins, a sophomore right fielder are the only two to hit home runs this tear, and they both run the bases well, too.
Johnson isn't just happy his team made it, he's thrilled all three arrived in Columbus.
"I think it's great all three of us made it,'' he said. "South Georgia has been behind in fast-pitch, but I think we're going good now. We've got three teams in Columbus.''