by Daniel Stackhouse
via The Prowler News at SMHS

After a sweep against a Thomas County Central, the Starr’s Mill Lady Panthers hosted the Kell Longhorns in the second round of the state playoffs. In two games, Starr’s Mill swept Kell, winning 4-1 game one and 16-0 game two, punching their ticket to Columbus for the AAAAA state tournament
Defense was the name of the game. Kell pitchers senior Mia Diangelis and junior Savannah Markt combined for 14 strikeouts, Diangelis throwing 12. Kell’s defense only gave up 11 hits prior to the fifth inning, but a defensive collapse led to another 11 hits in and 13 runs in the fifth inning alone.
Sophomores Lilli Backes and Sarah Latham combined for 10 strikeouts and only 5 hits and a single run for Starr’s Mill. Junior Jolie Lester went 3-5 with three RBIs and 2 runs scored on her own before the entire offense went off against a crumbling Kell defense in the fifth inning to take the game.
“That’s what good teams do,” head coach Mark Williamson said. “You got to take advantage of other team’s mistakes, and that’s what the ladies did tonight.”
Game one of the series began a day late due to a rain delay. Williamson believed that the team benefitted from getting back into the routine of a school day going into the series.
Backes started in the circle for the Panthers as usual, giving up only a single hit in the top of the first. Junior Lauren Flanders and sophomore Sydney Blair were on base when Lester hit a two-run double to give the Panthers an early lead.
Right off the bat Kell’s fielding struggled, but was redeemed with the pitching of Diangelis. All three outs of the first inning were strikeouts from Diangelis, but Lester was able to steal home to bring the lead to 3-0 before the inning ended.
“[Stepping up for the team] means a lot,” Lester said. “I think next game we should run through [the lineup]. We should manufacture more runs.”
The game remained scoreless after the first inning, and neither team was able to get anything going for the next three innings, as Backes and Diangelis combined for seven strikeouts, throwing three and four strikeouts respectively. There was only one double hit given up by Diangelis.

Starr’s Mill’s infield and pitcher, (L to R) Jolie Lester, Lauren Flanders, Ashley Sikes, Lilli Backes, and Kalin Blinstrub, and senior Paige Andrews, gather in the circle. The Panthers only gave up a single run across the entire series.
(Photo by Annika Pepper)

Backes and the Panther defense managed three up, three down at the top of the fifth. Lester capitalized by driving in Flanders in for another score, before a double play retired the offense.
Diangelis brought freshman Brooke Smith in off of a sacrifice fly to chip away at the Panther lead. As was the tone of the game, Starr’s Mill could not manufacture any more runs at the bottom of the sixth. Fortunately, they did not need to as the Panther defense managed a final three up, three down to end game one with a 4-1 victory.
“I feel like the defense really helped me, and really backed me up this game,” Backes said. “They have been doing their jobs, and it’s helped me out a lot.”
Half an hour later and the two teams were back again for game two. Latham was now in the circle for Starr’s Mill, while Diangelis remained in the circle for Kell.
Nobody could get anything started for the first two innings. At the top of the third, sophomore Kalin Blinstrub stole all the bases and scored a run due to a combination of a wild pitch and fielding errors. In this inning, Kell catcher junior Jodi Inglis suffered a head injury, putting her out to for the night, and the Longhorn defense shuffled around for the rest of the game.
Lester scored off of a sacrifice. Junior Alex Lombardo capitalized with a single RBI off of a fielding error, and the Panther defensive continued to shut down Kell.
Come to the top of the fifth, the Kell defense had already begun to crumble, so Starr’s Mill took advantage.
“[Leaving them in the dust] was good,” Lombardo said. “We like leaving teams in the dust.”
Three RBIs in a row from Blair, Lester, and Backes doubled the lead. After senior Paige Andrews was walked, Diangelis was pulled and Markt was sent to the circle.
Lombardo drove in two runs to widen the lead, and senior Reagan Turner tripled in a run for a 3-0 lead. Blair and Lester drove in runs to pounce on Kell’s collapsing defense.
A bases-loaded walk brought Blair in for another score, and Lombardo drove in three more runs to up the lead further.
“I really think our season has helped us build to this point,” Latham said. “We wouldn’t have been able to [get here] without any of the hardships we’ve faced.”
The offensive explosion led to a victory by mercy rule,as the Panthers defeated the Longhorns in game two by a score of 16-0. With that, Starr’s Mill won the series 2-0, winning a spot in the AAAAA state tournament.
Starr’s Mill will begin the tournament against reigning champion Locust Grove. Locust Grove has cruised their way to the state tournament. They faced Loganville this past week in the second round of the playoffs and swept Loganville 8-2 and 13-1.
“I feel like we’ve got a chance to go down there and make some noise,” Williamson said. “But we’ve gotta play really good ball. [The team’s] gotta click together.
Starr’s Mill will head to Columbus, Georgia to face off against Locust Grove Thursday, October 24. The game is scheduled to begin at 4:00 p.m.