by Rob Grubbs
The Starr’s Mill Lady Panthers softball entered the 2016 softball season in a bit of transition, gone was their 2015 Fayette County Pitcher of the year who moved on to play at the University of Georgia . While the roster was talented, they were young, especially in the circle, so it was head coach Mark Williamson’s vision to build confidence over the course of the season and have the ladies grow up by tournament time. With Whitewater returning most of their lineup and their star pitcher, Sarah Middleton, they were the favorites to win the Region 3-AAAAAA title, but Coach Williamson also knew his team was talented enough finish high in the region standings and hopefully, with the right combination of hitting, leadership from his lone senior, and overall team development, put pressure on the Wildcats by the end of the year. It was a vision that he was able to cast to his coaching staff, his team, and the Panther faithful, and it worked all the way to a fourth place finish in the final state rankings this past weekend in Columbus.
When asked if he saw this coming back in August when the season started, Coach Williamson quipped, “Not when we started the year 2-4 I didn’t” as his young team took some big losses early, including run rule defeats to Union Grove and Newnan. He understood the process and continued to teach and develop into what he called “the most fun I have had in coaching in the past 10 years.”
As his players bought in, the Panthers gained a solid lock on second place in the region and went into the region tournament with fresh confidence. After sweeping McIntosh in the first round, they faced off against the Wildcats for the championship, and while they would lose the series, Williamson noted that their win in the second game went a long way towards how the season would play out.
“We hit Middleton well in that game,” said Williamson. “You could sense the confidence growing and the confidence we were building in each other. “
The Panthers would open the state playoffs by hosting Veterans High School at home, and found adversity almost immediately, falling behind early 7-1. With their backs against the wall, they embarked on an incredible comeback, which was started and finished by their team leader and lone senior, Shelby Daniel. With her team stunned and down, Shelby started a critical inning with a long home run that changed the game and would continue with another home run in the same inning.
“It was at that moment in that game that the girls realized who they were as a team and what they would actually become if they played together,” remembered Williamson. “It was as if the light came on for them.”
With a first round win against Veterans, Arabia Mountain was the last obstacle to get to Columbus. After a back and forth win in game 1, Williamson once again called upon leadership from Daniel, this time putting her behind the plate to catch in the deciding game.
“Whatever we asked her to do, she always came through, all season long.”
After clinching the series, the Panthers were on their way to Columbus for the Elite 8 tournament, but had a tall order in playing the seven-time defending champion Buford, who enjoys multiple competitive advantages over the rest of the schools in the state. Williamson’s team embraced the challenge and fought early, but ending up falling to the eventual champion and would be forced to continue the weekend from the loser’s bracket.
Unfortunately for local fans, the next game would be against Whitewater again, for the sixth time, and the loser would have to go home. It was here where Williamson’s vision came to fruition. Facing a team that had already beaten them four times, the ladies responded with a 3-1 win in extra innings, and, while Whitewater had won the region, Starr’s Mill would play on in the tournament.
Next up, Union Grove, another team that had beat them handily, and once again, the ladies responded with a convincing 9-3 win. After eliminating two teams, the Panthers run would end with a tough loss against eventual runner-up Walnut Grove, 3-0, in a game where they had chances, even getting the bases loaded late.
As Williamson said, “They never quit fighting, the never gave up.”
The Panthers finished the tournament with the overall fourth ranking, with their only two losses against the champion and runner-up. The 2-4 start was just a distant memory in the successful season.
Throughout the playoffs, the story was Daniel. She hit 6 home runs against pitching that was much better than in the regular season and drove in 13 runs. Kate Ashmore hit .407 over the eight playoff games to lead the team, with Laura Sellers hitting .321 and driving in 7 run. Jordan Childress added 10 RBI. In the circle, pitchers Wakana Sato and Paige Andrews both finished 3-1.
The outlook is bright on paper for next year, bringing back the whole team with the exception of one. However, that one will be huge, as not only will they miss Daniel’s power hitting in the middle of the lineup but her leadership.
Williamson said, “There is no way to do what we did this year without Daniel. It will be up to the girls to replace that role next year. We are going to enjoy this, but we are also very exciting for the future as well.”
Whitewater finished 26-7 for the season and ranked seventh, an awesome accomplishment for two local schools to finish in the top seven of the final state rankings. While Middleton moves on the next level, Coach Robert Townsend has young prospects ready to step up. They will be in much the same position as Starr’s Mill started this season. He will look to build around a nucleus of veterans in Katelyn Perry, Bailey Vessell and Kinsey Sords. Next season is setting up to be just as exciting as this year was for both teams.