Starr’s Mill, Whitewater punch tickets to softball Elite 8
by Rob Grubbs
In Georgia High School football, the mantra for every team at the start of the season is to make it to the Dome, where the state championships are held for all classifications in Atlanta each year. The equivalent terminology in high school softball is to make it to Columbus, where the top eight teams from each classification meet in the annual championship tournament. In an unprecedented evening of local softball, not one but two teams from Fayette County qualified for the trip down south next week: Starr’s Mill, the number two seed from Region 3-AAAAA swept Arabia Mountain in Lithonia, while number one seed Whitewater took care of business at home against Woodland High School.
When the season began, Whitewater was one of the favorites from the region to advance to the postseason with leadership provided from six seniors, including pitcher Sarah Middleton, a Player of the Year candidate. The Panthers team, which had lost the 2015 Fayette County Pitcher of the Year to graduation, seemed to be a year away, with a young pitching staff and only one senior on their roster, Shelby Daniel. As the two teams battled during the regular season and region tournament, it was apparent that Whitewater was as good as advertised. Middleton was strong in the circle, often dominant, and the lineup struck a balance between speed and power. It was also becoming apparent that Starr’s Mill was jelling as a team at the right time. Their pitchers were growing up, their leadoff batter was consistently getting on base, and the middle of the order was producing. On Wednesday, all of the above came together to punch an Elite 8 ticket for both teams.
The Panthers (23-10) had to travel to Lithonia for their series, which had to be played earlier in the day for lighting purposes. Coach Mark Williamson went with sophomore Wakana Sato in the circle for Game 1. With Starr’s Mill down 6-4 in third inning through some unearned runs, he brought in freshman Paige Andrews who only gave up one run the rest of the way and earned the victory. With Kate Ashmore and Laura Sellers leading the offense, the Panthers closed out Game 1 with an 11-7 win. Andrews started Game 2, and, using Coach Williamson’s balanced pitching rotation perfectly, pitched two innings, then gave way to middle reliever Abbey Brady for two innings and finishing up with Sato for the series clinching win 10-7. In the game, Daniel hit a 2-run home run in the 4th inning to put the Panthers up for good, and Jordan Childress had a two-out hit in the bottom of the sixth to give Sato a three-run cushion to close it out in the 7th inning. Overall, Ashmore finished 4 for 5 with 7 runs scored, and Sellers drove in 4 runs with 2 doubles.
For the Wildcats (26-5), the pitching rotation is much more simple, Sarah Middleton. In Game 1, Woodland scratched out an early run only to watch Whitewater’s lineup score 7 runs over the next 5 innings on the way to a 7-2 win. Junior shortstop Katelyn Perry lead off the Whitewater home half of the first with a long home run to center to jump start the balanced attack. The Wildcat defense was also stellar, as second baseman Jordan Roy starting a double play in the second inning by ranging towards the middle for the unassisted put out and throwing against her body to get the Woodland runner at first. Whitewater would execute another double play in the 5th frame as Ruth Jones started the 5-4-3 double play to end that inning.
While Game 1 was never in doubt after the early innings, Game 2 was a nail biter throughout and needed an extra inning to secure the series sweep for Whitewater. Woodland held a 3-1 lead going into the 6th inning as the Whitewater bats had gone silent since the 4th inning of the first game, only scoring 1 over the next 7 innings. With innings winding down, there seemed to be a real possibility of a Game 3 on Thursday.
Sophomore Bailey Vessell led off with a single, which was no surprise since she got on base six times in the two games. Middleton followed with a single and, after a stolen base, the Wildcats had runners at second and third with one out for the always clutch hitting Lauren King, who delivered a two-run single to tie the game. Middleton seemed to get stronger as the innings went by, shutting down a Woodland threat in the 6th when they advanced a runner to third.
After seven regulation innings, the game remained tied and as is GHSA softball protocol, the game went into an International Tie Breaker (ITB) format where the inning starts with a runner at second base. In Whitewater’s half inning, Vessell began at second, advanced to third with a perfect bunt from Jones, and scored on a sacrifice fly by Middleton, just as coach Robert Townsend had drawn it up in the huddle beforehand.
Now the pressure was on Middleton and the defense to not allow Woodland a score. With a runner on third and two outs, Woodland outfielder Jordan Duck hit a fly ball to deep left that first looked like it might be out, then it appeared to be going way foul, only to see Wildcat left fielder Kinsey Sords make a circus catch against the fence to end the game and the series.
Middleton pitched all 15 innings of the night for Whitewater, winning both games, striking out 12, and driving in the winning run in Game 2. Vessell was in the middle of all the Wildcat offensive production, scoring 5 runs, including the winning run in extras, driving in a run, executing a sacrifice, and playing flawless defense in centerfield.
For her part afterwards, Vessell said “We were behind in the second game, but we were not down. Our focus was on getting to Columbus, and we just did what we needed to do.”
Both schools will return to action next week for the finals in Columbus as Whitewater will open up against Walnut Grove High School and Starr’s Mill will face perennial state power Buford High School in the double elimination format tournament.
Whitewater, McIntosh advance to Elite 8 of volleyball tourney
by Christopher Dunn
A pair of area teams are one step closer to adding another state volleyball championship to their mantels, Whitewater and McIntosh dominating the competition Tuesday to earn their spots in the Elite Eight.
Whitewater pasted Decatur at home, dominating the Bulldogs in straight sets (25-12, 25-12, 25-18).
McIntosh rolled into the quarterfinals with a straight-sets road win over Riverwood (25-15, 25-19, 25-16). Finn Millians led the way in kills for the Chiefs with 8, followed by Carolina Cameron with 7, Elise Mackanych with 6, and Avery Chaffin with 5. Brianna Beccera and Nell Copeland shared the lead in digs with 12 apiece. Lynsey Hamblin posted 19 assists, with Copeland adding 17.
Starr’s Mill was knocked out with a road loss to Veterans (21-25, 15-25, 24-26). The Panthers were led in kills by Dani Simonsen with 7 and Tessa Laney with 6. Alexis Berrios posted 17 digs, and both Emily Schafhauser and Jessica Tomasello posted 10 assists.
Sandy Creek was eliminated with a road loss to Columbus (17-25, 14-25, 17-25).
Elite Eight action will commence Saturday morning with Whitewater hosting Walnut Grove and McIntosh hosting Walnut Grove.