GAINESVILLE -- Traveling fans, intense competition and tournament-style play -- to the untrained eye Thursday's high school softball games at North Hall could have been midseason thrillers.
But this week's Early Bird Camp, hosted by the Lady Trojans, is merely a warm-up for the fast-approaching season.
The two-day event is in its ninth year and offers teams the chance for some real competition before the full campaign gets underway on Aug. 10.
"It's just a great way for everybody to get experience," North Hall coach Brooke Russell said of the Early Bird, which featured teams from Flowery Branch, Chestatee, Fannin County, Towns County, Union Grove, Harlem and Brookstone, as well as the hosts. "It gives everybody a chance for more at-bats, more chances to experience game situations."
The Early Bird also acts as a fundraiser for the Lady Trojans, who will kick off the season in earnest on Aug. 10 in the annual Lanier Point Invitational in Gainesville.
"Our girls look forward to this every year; they like to hang out and volunteer and get a chance to be with each other," Russell said.
The Lady Trojans -- like most teams this time of year -- are also looking forward to the beginning of the 2012 campaign.
"We're excited about this year for sure," Russell said. "We're older, more mature this year, and I think we're going to have a competitive group this year. We have three seniors and three juniors and a big sophomore class that all got varsity experience last year as freshmen."
Playing in a newly-designed Region 7-AAA, North Hall knows it will be tested early and often, as the league includes familiar foes West Hall, White County and East Hall but will also feature new region opponents for the Trojans such as Dawson County, Fannin County and Banks County. The region will also include five-time state champion Buford, which has moved up from Class AA.
"It's going to be pretty tough," Russell said of the 7-AAA schedule. "I think most of the teams will be on the same playing field, and I expect a lot of one-run games."
In the meantime, the Lady Trojans are doing their best to prepare for the onslaught, including spring ball and an emphasis on conditioning during the early summer.
"We spent all of June working on speed, agility and conditioning," Russell said. "These are our first games this summer. It's not the same for every program, though. I know a lot of teams have been playing games all summer."
As it stands summer is quickly drawing to a close -- for high school athletes anyway. And those teams participating at the Early Bird, and camps like it throughout the state, are counting the days until each pitch counts. When it does, players know it won't look much different from what they experienced on Wednesday and Thursday in Gainesville.