First round (best two of three)
Heritage, Conyers at Northwest Whitfield (DH), 5:30
Ringgold at Walnut Grove (DH), 4:30
Dalton at Oconee County (DH), 4:30
Franklin County at Heritage (DH), 5:30
Lakeview-F.O. at Dawson County (DH), 3
North Murray at Union County (DH), 4
Fannin County at Dade County (DH), 5
Providence Christian at Gordon Lee (DH), 6
Nine northwest Georgia softball teams will take the field Wednesday when the GHSA state playoffs begin with doubleheaders in best-of-three series. Among the nine are two that very few would have predicted to get this far.
While region champions Northwest Whitfield (7-AAAA), Heritage (7-AAA) and Gordon Lee (6-A) took care of business and earned top seeds, two teams with a combined record of 8-37 a year ago also advanced.
Three-year old North Murray and first-year coach Daphne Winkler are the surprise team of the Class AA field after earning the fourth seed from Region 7-AA. The Lady Mountaineers (16-12) upset perennial state contender Rockmart in the region tournament to earn the school's first postseason berth.
Winkler, a Murray County graduate, regularly starts five freshmen and two sophomores and uses a unique rotation with junior pitchers Hannah Hensley and Cara Tucker. She also never let her young team believe it was inferior to any other, something the players took to heart in a season-turning 14-5 win over state-ranked Calhoun in mid-September.
"I guess if I had taken last year's record in consideration, I would be surprised we're here, but after a few practices I felt like we could play with most teams," Winkler said. "No question, the turning point came when we beat Calhoun at home. My girls had such an intensity that day, and from there we lost only two region games."
They'll need that intensity in the first round as the Lady Mountaineers travel to last year's state runner-up, Union County, which is coached by former Northwest Whitfield player Jessica Stewart. Winkler will rely on her only senior, right fielder Alex Campbell, for offensive pop and will stick with using both pitchers in each game.
"Most teams at this level have dominant pitching, but we don't," she said. "But we have two girls in Hannah and Cara that have combined to pitch really well for us. We start Hannah, and we try to get four innings out of her, and just when teams are timing her we bring in Cara, who throws harder. We're not very traditional, but it's working."
The other major surprise is Dalton, which went from 5-20 a year ago to 19-16 this year. Bob Brotherton's Lady Catamounts were the seventh seed at the Region 7-AAA tournament last week but used a 5-4 upset of Pickens County to earn their state berth.
Dalton has won 11 of its final 14 games, using a potent lineup led by Chandler McKinney, Destinee Woods and Allie Blackwood. Like North Murray, the Lady Cats have just one senior and regularly rotate pitchers Blackwood and Carson Hagin.
"It's been a good season for us," said Brotherton, whose team takes on top-ranked Oconee County on Wednesday. "The girls about midseason started buying into what we were trying to teach them, and they just took off. It's pretty much the same team we had last year, but they've really matured."
Contact Lindsey Young at email@example.com or at 423-757-6296.
Lindsey Young is a sports writer at the Chattanooga Times Free Press who started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press 24 years ago. He covers the Northwest Georgia prep beat and NASCAR. Lindsey’s hometown is Ringgold, Ga., and he graduated from Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe High School. He received an associate’s degree from Dalton Junior College (now Dalton State) and a bachelor’s degree in communications from UTC. He has won several writing awards, including two Tennessee Sports ...