Friday February 12th, 2016 12:42AM

Softball: Area teams prepare for playoff push

By Jeff Hart Sports Reporter
With the regular season winding down, area softball team's are trying to finish strong as the jockeying for seedings in upcoming region tournaments draws near.

Some regions, like 8-AA, 8-AAAA, and 8-AAAAA have completed their regular season while some teams, like Buford in 7-AAA, have already clinched the top spot with one more week left in the regular season.

No region will be as competitive as 8-AA when the region tournaments get underway. Jefferson won the regular season with Social Circle taking second. Union County was third, followed by Oglethorpe County, Rabun County, and Washington-Wilkes.

But Jefferson and Union County split a pair of games during the regular season while Union County dropped two one-run games to Social Circle while Jefferson swept Social Circle during the regular season.

Union County coach Jessica Stewart said the tournament is wide-open for whichever team gets hot.

"We played Jefferson very tough and we lost two close games to Social so really anyone can win this thing," she said. "I feel we have a very good chance. The key will be pitching and getting some big hits."

The Lady Panthers have relied on freshman pitcher Laken Chambers, who has progressed in her first year of varsity ball. Junior catcher Courtney Busbee leads Union with a .390 batting average.

Jefferson has been led by the pitching duo of Olivia Husted and Caitlin Cantrell. The Lady Dragons Savannah Snapp, Husted, and Jordan Phillips have led them at the plate most of the season.

Region 8-AA will begin its region tournament Oct. 5 with the top two seeds getting a first round bye. Union County (3) will play host to Washington-Wilkes (6) while Rabun County (5) will travel to Oglethorpe County (4) in best-of-three series'.

In Region 7-AAA, No. 1-ranked and six-time defending state champion Buford has been the class of the league, running the table so far. The region wraps up the regular season this week before the region tournament gets underway Oct. 5 at the Lanier Pointe Softball Complex in Gainesville.

East Hall coach Jenny Crow, whose Lady Vikings have been the biggest surprise of the season and currently sit tied for second with Dawson County, said it is wide-open for the three spots behind undefeated Buford.

"I think it's going to be hard to knock Buford off but really any one of about four or five teams could get the other three spots," Crow said. "We have all beaten each other so it should be a very competitive and fun tournament."

After Buford, East Hall, and Dawson County, Banks County is fourth, with 2012 region runner-up Fannin County in fifth. North Hall and White County are tied for sixth with West Hall eighth.

East Hall will play host to Buford on Thursday and wrap up the regular season next week. Crow, who is trying to guide the Lady Vikings to their first-ever state playoff appearance, said her team is ready for the challenge.

"We had a strong group two years ago that was not able to get out of the region," Crow said. "That's our goal and most of these girls were on that team and remember that. If they come to play, I feel we have a good shot at making the playoffs."

In Region 8-AAAAA, the regular season has concluded with Heritage taking the top seed heading into next week's region tournament. Loganville was second, Apalachee third, and Flowery Branch fourth, with the top four teams separated by just three games. Winder-Barrow is fifth and Salem is sixth. Gainesville is seventh and will play Salem at 5 p.m. Monday in Winder, as the region tournament gets underway.

Heritage and Loganville earned a bye with Flowery Branch playing the winner of the Winder-Barrow/Cedar Shoals play-in game. (EDITOR'S NOTE: This corrects an erroneous report earlier that Gainesville would not take part in the region tournament.)

Lady Falcons coach Laura Beaver said it should be a wide-open tournament.

"I feel like anyone really has a chance certainly to get into the playoffs," Beaver said. "Heritage is probably the favorite but we're all pretty close."

For the Lady Falcons, Beaver said the pitching of senior pitcher Jessica Thomas is the key . However, they feature a potent lineup with two of
their top three batters -- junior center fielder Kelly Kahlert, a North Georgia commit, and sophomore second baseman Bailey Sims -- both batting over .500 on the season. Seniors Casey Zoeller (ss) and Megan Prichard (c) give them a solid top of the order.

"We know we will be able to score runs but the key will be our pitchers and defense keeping people off base and from scoring. If we can do that, I like our chances," Beaver said.

Flowery Branch is looking for its first trip to the playoffs in Class AAAAA after falling in the first round of the region tournament each of the past two seasons.

"It was frustrating the last two years so our first goal is to get into the playoffs. Then we'll see if we can win (the region title)," Beaver said.

In Region 8-AAAA the regular season was complete with the region tournament set to begin next week. Madison County finished with a perfect 8-0 record. Walnut Grove was second, Lumpkin County third, Lanier was fourth, Stephens County fifth, and Eastside sixth.
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