High School Softball
Newnan team optimistic heading into Columbus
by Chris Goltermann
If one were to take a map of Georgia and mark the location of each of this year's eight quarterfinalists participating in this week's Class AAAAAA Softball Tournament bracket, it'd look something like this: A cluster of four schools together on the west side of Atlanta in Cobb County, and three more within close range northeast of the city in Gwinnett.
Finding the eighth, however, may present a search much like a 'Where's Waldo?' children's book. Here's a hint. Move your finger 30 miles south on I-85.
While an underdog Newnan lineup certainly earned its f i rst trip to the South Commons Complex in Columbus with a 25-8 record, the Lady Cougars may only lead the eight remaining softball programs in one statistical category - namely, shortest bus ride - heading into today's first-round game at 6 p.m.
Their opponent, Collins Hill (24-5), is making its eighth trip in the past 11 years to the GHSA Elite 8 after finishing one win shy of making last year's state championship game. And of this year's quarterfinalists, only two - Newnan and a Harrison team that knocked off rival East Coweta in last week's second round - enter unranked among an otherwise Who's Who of Class AAAAAA softball powers.
Along with the No. 4 stateranked Lady Eagles, this year's quarterfinalists include No. 1 Lassiter, No. 2 Brookwood, No. 3 Kennesaw Mountain, No. 5 North Gwinnett and No. 8 Hillgrove.
'It's great that we get to go and represent, but they don't look at us and have that same type of respect yet from the northside,' said Newnan head coach Carrie Gilmore. 'They want to go down there and show them there is some good softball played down here.'
While others look to build on recent tradition, a Lady Cougars lineup that has been as much a mix of veterans and first-year contributors may be on the verge of establishing their own string of appearances in Columbus after getting past the second-round of the playoffs for the first time since 2010.
'I've probably been the most proud of them this year because at one point of the region tournament we had three starters out of our lineup and you wouldn't have really noticed,' said Gilmore, whose team hasn't lost back-to-back games this fall since consecutive defeats to Carrollton and Northgate on Aug. 16 and Aug. 19 'They just battled back and they've fought a lot harder than in previous years. This is a type of team that doesn't get down.'
A lineup that has carried on through key injuries over the last three-four weeks is as healthy as ever, both physically and spiritually after three consecutive playoff victories where the team outscored opponents 18-3.
A clutch 1-0 win in Game 3 over Colquitt County in the first-round of the playoffs was promptly followed by a resounding two-game sweep of Region 2-AAAAA champion Alcovy, trailing only once and putting together 26 hits over the doubleheader.
'Just battling back and staying in [the game] for a full seven innings, which is something we've worked on so hard since the beginning of the year. And I think they've finally gotten to that point now where they stay up in the game,' Gilmore said. 'I think they knew against Alcovy they were going to have to work a little bit harder. They really looked like they wanted to get it done.'
Pitching, fielding and hitting - the latter both in the clutch and through explosive rallies - Gilmore, husband Marc and fellow assistant Alison Johns - feeling optimistic about an ambitious group of girls that have treated every game, both live and in practice, with a cutthroat attitude.
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'We played Ultimate Frisbee during one practice just to shake things up and it was just as intense,' Gilmore said.
Considering there's been a balance between this year's five seniors, four juniors and seven freshmen and sophomores - at least four of whom have played major roles in first years on the varsity, lends thoughts to the start of a streak of Elite 8 appearances. Newnan's JV put together a trophy-winning season while a middle-school lineup comprised of Smokey Road and Evans players won both a county and Fayette-Coweta championship.
This year's varsity lineup has received contributions throughout the lineup with six starters all posting averages above .320. Led by senior Chaycie Goggins, the team has belted 22 homeruns including a game-winning solo shot by Goggins to help catapult her teammates into the second round in Game 3 against Colquitt.
The middle of the order - Goggins, junior catcher Arden Jobe and freshman standout Leslie Davis, all have at least three homers and 20 RBIs. Junior outfielder Lauren Ferguson also has three home runs among her five-extra base hits.
Senior third-baseman Lindsay Stewart, who made a pivotal move across the diamond to fill a need from her previous starting role at second base this year, takes a team-high 31 RBIs and a .416 batting average into today's showdown with Collins Hill.
'The team chemistry has been just so consistent,' Gilmore said. 'They really pull for each other to do well, even the ones on the bench. They want to see each other succeed and they just have a great time together. That's what's made the season so much fun.'
Along with Davis, sophomores Maysen Willard and Mary Bryan Arnall in addition to freshman Hannah Scarbrough have appeared in at least 20 games, with Scarbrough filling Goggins' vacant shortstop position while she recovered from an appendectomy.
Willard, an equally outstanding fielder, has a .322 average and is second on the team with 11 walks.
None may have been as important as the continued emergence of junior pitcher Tori Loveless, who has pitched 29 of the Lady Cougars 33 games for a 21-6 record, has given up just 40 earned runs and posted a 1.70 ERA. While managing just 71 strikeouts in 164 ? innings pitched, she's allowed just 28 walks and three hit batsmen to reach.
'We've seen her grow every year, but this year her mentality of the game just really improved from last year. You could just see that she was just more of a leader on the field from the circle,' Gilmore said. 'And there's been a lot of situations we've been in recently that would have worried me in the past with runners on third. But I think that's been part of the maturity.'
At the plate, Loveless has been just as effective, posting a .357 average, and a team-best .514 on-base percentage among starters.
Both Newnan and East Coweta were faced with a weak region schedule that forced the schools to try to prepare for the postseason through tougher non-region opponents. At times, it made for busy weeks that see-sawed from 10-0 blowouts to intense one-run games over back-to-back nights while trying to maintain momentum.
'Sometimes it's made us play so many games in one week and they're all late nights. It's hard to keep the momentum. We've talked about that consistency all year,' Gilmore said. 'They, right now, have so much confidence. Anything can happen in Columbus. We know the pitching is going to be good, but if we can keep our bats going. When they start seeing our weaknesses, are we going to be able to adjust at the plate. If we can do that, I have all the confidence in the world.'