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Pursuit of Perfection

SGA takes unbeaten record into state tourney

Southwest Georgia Academy seniors Allison Houston, front left; Braylie Blanton, back left; Kendyl Carver, back middle; Addison Ponder, back right; and Madison Ragan, front right, sit with coach Tommy Manry. The Lady Warriors are surging into the GISA Class AAA state tournament with an undefeated record. (Staff photo: Tim Morse)

Southwest Georgia Academy seniors Allison Houston, front left; Braylie Blanton, back left; Kendyl Carver, back middle; Addison Ponder, back right; and Madison Ragan, front right, sit with coach Tommy Manry. The Lady Warriors are surging into the GISA Class AAA state tournament with an undefeated record. (Staff photo: Tim Morse)

DAMASCUS – Addison Ponder crouches down, flips her sunglasses over her eyes and waits for the next fly ball at her leftfield position.

At the plate, Southwest Georgia Academy softball coach Tommy Manry waits for Ponder to get ready.

“It’s not like my age and my taxes … the ball is going to come down,” Manry shouts to Ponder.

Ponder at first gets a little irritated with her coach’s comments. But the more she thinks about it, the more she chuckles.

“The things coach says sometimes, we’re like ‘Really, coach?’ ” Ponder said. “He’s always got something to say. When he gets mad, it seems to be the funniest.”

Manry is known for keeping his team relaxed. He cracks silly jokes, tells coaching stories and recites lines of poetry from the many books he has read. It’s all part of coaching, he says, and his players love him for it.

This season has been a special one for the Lady Warriors. They have put together a perfect regular season, believed to be the first in school history. They open the GISA Class AAA state softball tournament today at noon when they play host to John Milledge.

SGA (16-0) is aiming for a bigger prize — a state championship. However, the Lady Warriors don’t want to put so much pressure on winning the grand prize that it takes the fun off the season.

It’s been somewhat of a storybook season so far. When nearby Randolph Southern closed, two prominent players — reigning Albany Herald Player of the Year Madison Ragan and Braylie Blanton — transferred to SGA. Manry wasn’t sure how two new players would affect his team’s close-knit chemistry.

“Our girls welcomed them with open arms,” Manry said. “It’s been a drama-free season, they have good work ethic, and we’ve had a lot fun.”

Manry said he knew the Lady Warriors could have a special season in late August when they met Tiftarea, a longtime nemesis. However, behind a three-hitter from Allison Warren, the Lady Warriors ran away with a 12-0 victory.

Things haven’t been the same since.

“That win made our girls realize that they could play with anybody,” Manry said. “From there, we got a whole lot better.”

That improvement was evident in mid-September when SGA met Sherwood Christian for what amounted to the de facto region championship game. With Sherwood ace Anna Laine Brock on the mound, SGA had its hands full.

Brock was in control but so was Ragan, who had no-hit the Lady Eagles through six innings. But in SGA’s sixth, they managed to get two runners on base. With two outs and two strikes on cleanup hitter Kendyl Carver, the Lady Warriors managed the improbable.

“I play travel ball with her so I was hoping she wasn’t going to throw me the rise ball,” Carver said. “I had nothing else on my mind but getting those runners home. I was waiting for her to make that one mistake.”

Brock did, throwing a fast outside pitch that Carver ripped for a three-run homer, propelling the Lady Warriors to a 3-0 win behind Ragan’s no-hitter.

Manry will tell you it’s easy to coach with talent. However, SGA players say otherwise. They credit Manry and assistant coaches Leanna Perryman and Rand Ragan — Madison’s father and the former coach at Randolph Southern — with their success this year.

Sophomore shortstop Baylee Everson laughs at Manry’s sarcasm as well as his jokes and stories. But she said there’s always a point to his adages.

“He’s told us a story about the geese flying together,” Everson said. “When they’re not all flying together, they’re not going to get to where they’re supposed to go. It’s the same way with our team. If we’re not playing together, we’re not going to get where we’re supposed to go.”

Everson said Manry treats the players like his children.

“He always tells us that we’re the reason he wakes up every morning so he can coach softball,” she said. “He’s very close to us.”

SGA has heeded all of Manry’s advice. Offensively, the team is batting .404 with five starters — Everson (.583 avg., 17 RBIs), Braylie Blanton (.484 avg., 9 2B), Ragan (.674 avg., 10 2B, 33 RBIs), Carver (.479 avg., 7 HR, 27 RBIs) and Bella Cushing (.407 avg., 16 RBIs) — batting .400 or better.

Pitching has been where the Lady Warriors have dominated. Ragan is 8-0 with a 0.48 ERA, striking out 75 in 43 1/3 innings. Allison Warren (6-0, 1.01 ERA, 20 Ks) and Allison Houston (2-0, 1.00 ERA) have been very effective.

But as postseason play begins, SGA players know they have to turn things up. They know opposing teams will take aim at their unbeaten record.

“Going unbeaten is something everybody hopes to accomplish,” Ponder said. “We like being that team everybody wants to beat.”

Several players said they aren’t sure how much longer Manry will continue coaching as he nears retirement. That’s why winning a state title is so important.

But if that doesn’t happen, SGA players say the influence the longtime coach has had on their lives can’t be measured.

“Coach Manry, Leanna and Rand Ragan are the best coaches to play for,” Ponder said. “They push us when they know we can do better. If you don’t have good coaching, you can’t enjoy your year.”

Which is why they say 2013 has been so much fun.