Kelsea Ogletree enter today’s region tournament ranked No. 20 in the latest NJCAA Top 25 poll. (David Mann/Darton State College)
LOCUST GROVE — The disasters just kept coming for the Darton softball team.
First they were stunned by a tense scuffle during a midseason game against Chipola, Fla., that resulted in beloved assistant coach Gene Dews resigning for health reasons.
Then they were blindsided by a brutal season-ending injury to catcher Holly Smith.
But as the nationally-ranked No. 20 Lady Cavs enter today’s Region XVII tournament opener in search of their third state title in five years, sophomore Kelsea Ogletree is sure of one thing.
The Lady Cavs haven’t backed down from any of it.
“It’s been a rollercoaster season,” she said. “It’s been interesting, but through everything we have stayed together. There have been some bad, but the good has overridden the bad. Our team has stuck together and become a family through everything that has happened to us.”
Darton (35-13, 12-4) is the No. 2 seed in the tournament after finishing one game behind Georgia Perimeter in the region standings, and the Lady Cavs will open at 7 p.m. today against the winner of No. 3 Middle Georgia College and No. 6 Gordon State College.
Darton coach David Dews doesn’t expect either potential opponent to be an easy route to the quarterfinals.
“One pitch here or there separates the top six teams,” Dews said. “It’s that close, and anybody in this tournament can win it.”
It could be anybody’s year …
“But it’s most importantly Darton’s year,” Darton sophomore Chelsea Showers said with a confident smile. “I feel like we have the best hitting and best pitching team out here. We might have dropped some games, but it all comes down to the tournament, and all of us are ready. I know we can come out strong and win the tournament.”
The Lady Cavs started the season strong, beginning the year ranked No. 10 in the country and running out to a 22-6 record, but then they lost three of four heading into a doubleheader against Chipola on March 14, which is when the season took an unexpected turn.
The Darton and Chipola coaches got into a heated argument between games after the Chipola coaching staff accused the Lady Cavs of violating an NJCAA rule by changing their defensive alignment during innings, which led to Gene Dews allegedly pushing a Chipola coach that stuck his finger “forcefully” into his chest.
“I hate that it happened, but when someone puts their hands on you first, you have to defend yourself,” David Dews, Gene’s son, told The Herald back in March. “And the guy put his hands on Dad first.”
Health issues forced Gene Dews to leave the team after the incident, and three weeks later the Lady Cavs lost another part of their team when Smith severely broke her nose during a collision at second base during a game against South Georgia College on April 10.
“It was a shot to everyone’s heart when she got hurt,” Ogletree said. “She had over 100 fractures in her face, and it was brutal. There really aren’t any words to describe how it looked.”
Smith, a sophomore from Dudley, was batting .279 at the time of the injury and had been a vital part of a pitching staff that was first in the region with a 1.73 ERA.
“I felt like it all happened for a reason,” Showers said. “I wish it didn’t happen with Holly, but it pumped us up to go out and win it for her. We all knew that wasn’t how she wanted to end her career. It was a heartbreaker.
“It would mean a lot for the sophomores to win (the tournament), but it would mean a whole lot more if we could win it for Holly, knowing that is how she wanted to go out.”
The Lady Cavs closed the regular season with seven wins in eight games following Smith’s injury, outscoring opponents 63-9 during that stretch.
“Us going through the ups and downs of the season really put things into perspective and gave them a sense or urgency to go out and play our best day-in and day-out,” Dews said.
Nobody has been playing better than Ogletree and Showers, who have combined for 91 RBI and 88 runs this season. Ogletree leads the region in batting average (.467) and on-base percentage (.560), is second in RBI (53) and slugging percentage (.822) and is tied for second with 11 home runs, while Ogletree is the region leader in steals (30), runs (55) and doubles (17) and has 38 RBI and a batting average of .434.
When asked about the 1-2 combination of herself and Ogletree, Showers used Monday’s win against West Georgia Tech as an example of how dangerous they can be at the plate.
“I hit a home run, and then my next at-bat they walked me to load the bases and get to Kelsea. I was just thinking, ‘That’s a big mistake,’ ” Showers said.
Ogletree drove in two runs with a single up the middle moments later — a scene that has played out over and over all season.
“There is no way around our lineup this year. You can walk me but then you get to Kelsea. And you can walk Kelsea, but then you get Melissa (Dearth),” Showers said.
Darton leads the region in hitting with a team batting average of .340, but Dews thinks it will be pitching that carries them to a region title.
Savannah Carlisle is second in the region with a 0.97 ERA, while Jostlyn Higgerson is fourth with a 1.56 ERA. Sophomore left-hander Jenny Willis, who has a 3.58 ERA and 7-4 record, gives the Lady Cavs a third option.
“All three of them do different things really well, so we will key more on matchups, as opposed to just having a No. 1 and sending her out there,” Dews said. “I really believe (the tournament will be won) in the circle and if our pitchers are able to execute pitches. And just being hard-nosed and tough will hopefully translate into us getting over the top.”