by Rob Grubbs
It has been almost a decade since a Fayette County school has won a region softball crown, but that was to change this season as the Whitewater Lady Wildcats, ranked fourth in the state, faced off against the Starr’s Mill Lady Panthers, who were ranked tenth, to determine the 3-AAAAA region champion and the seeding for next week’s first round state tournament matchups.
Whitewater won both regular season games between the two, and hosted the championship series in a best-of-three format at their home stadium. The matchup featured a young Starr’s Mill pitching staff against the veteran, four-year starter for Whitewater, Sarah Middleton, in a doubleheader on Tuesday night and single deciding game on Wednesday. Nineteen innings later, Whitewater emerged as the champion, with both teams taking a lot of positives into the first round Wednesday, October 15, and Coach Robert Townsend and the Lady Wildcats holding the region trophy for the Whitewater trophy case.
Whitewater has a long history of outstanding pitching since its initial season, from Ashley Pederson to Whitney Toler to MacKenzie Toler, all leaders who excelled in the circle. Middleton has carried that legacy into her senior year and it was no doubt the Panthers would have to beat her twice to earn the title.
Middleton seemed to be in top form in game one, pitching a complete game shutout as Whitewater won 3-0. She only needed 86 pitches, striking out 7, walking no one, and only facing four Panther baserunners the entire game. She also excelled at the plate, going 2 for 3 and playing a role in all three of the Lady Wildcat runs. Sophomore Wakana Sato pitched for the Lady Panthers, keeping the high-powered Wildcat offense off balance most of the night, holding them to single runs in the second, third, and sixth inning, but more than enough for the win with Middleton’s shutout.
Game two started in a similar fashion, the Wildcats scratching out a run in the first as Bailey Vessell scored on a sacrifice fly by Lauren King off Starr’s Mill freshman starting pitcher Paige Andrews. With two runners still on and two outs, Andrews steadied herself to get out of the inning with no more damage. In Starr’s Mill’s first at bat, Kate Ashmore hit a deep home run on the only mistake pitch Middleton made in the entire series, and the Panthers had life at 2-1 after one.
The turning point of the game came in the fifth, the Wildcats with the tying run on third with two outs when King hit a ball that just glanced off the outfielder’s glove for the tying run. Andrews seemed a bit rattled and hit the next two batters to load the bases. Jordan Roy hit a ground ball deep into the hole that shortstop Alyssa Angelo fielded cleanly and with no chance at the runner at first, sprinted to third to get the force-out to end the threat and the inning tied at 2-2. Angelo’s defensive gem obviously fired up the Panthers as they scored three in the bottom of the inning, highlighted by back-to-back run scoring doubles from Shelby Daniel and Laurie Sellers, providing the margin of Starr’s Mill’s 6-2 victory.
For the Wildcats, Vessell had three hits and Middleton added two more, while Andrews earned the series-tying win with a complete-game effort, forcing the deciding third game.
On Wednesday, there was no doubt who would pitch for Whitewater, as Middleton was poised for the rubber match. Panther coach Mark Williamson went with Andrews again in the circle for Starr’s Mill. From the very first pitch it was obvious that Middleton felt no ill effects from the loss the night before, as she was dominant from start to finish. Andrews matched her for the first two innings, only giving up one run and keeping the Whitewater hitters somewhat in check, but after some shaky defense surfaced in the third, Whitewater opened the game up with four runs and then five more in the fourth inning, with Katelyn Perry and Lauren King both hitting long home runs for the final score of 11-0.
King finished the game 3 for 3 with 2 home runs and 6 RBI in a dominant performance at the plate to match Middleton’s brilliance in the circle, who finished with the one-hit shutout. Senior Ruth Jones also played spectacular on defense at third base as Starr’s Mill tried multiple times to generate offense with their speed and short game.
After the clinching victory, Townsend was quick to praise the performance of Middleton and the entire team, right before he got the celebratory Gatorade cooler bath of ice water. Townsend, who won five region championships as the head baseball coach at Fayette County High School, clinched his first softball region championship for the rare coaching double in Georgia High School Athletics.
Middleton finished the series with two shut outs, striking out 13 and walking no one, just missing a no-hitter in the final game on an infield hit with two outs. She also went 6 for 10 at the plate and directed an overall excellent defensive performance in the three games. With a one seed, it guaranteed that this will not be her final performance in front of the home crowd.
The state playoffs start on Wednesday, with Whitewater facing the four seed from Region 1-AAAAA, Bainbridge, while Starr’s Mill gets the three seed Veterans High School from Warner Robins, both in their home stadiums. With everyone focusing on the next two rounds to get to Columbus for the finals, it could be that these two teams meet once again for the sixth time, in the final eight series for the AAAAA State Championship.