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Tuesday June 30th, 2015 9:55PM

2014 softball preview: Lady Wolves look for 8th straight title with change all around

By Jeff Hart Sports Reporter
Before it has even officially begun the upcoming 2014 softball season around northeast Georgia already is being highlighted by change.<br /> <br /> From new coaches to region realignment and the graduation of some the top players from a year ago, the new season figures to offer plenty of unknowns for fans.<br /> <br /> Hall County teams alone saw a significant shake-up in their coaching ranks as four new head coaches will be taking the field. Former Mill Creek coach Roger Parham takes over at Gainesville and Brittney Smith takes the reigns at Johnson. Adam Rich moved from West Hall to take the same position at Chestatee and Kasey Knight takes over for the Lady Spartans.<br /> <br /> But while change is the norm for many of the area teams this season, the one constant will be the Buford Lady Wolves, who will be gunning for an unprecedented eighth straight state title that would span three different classifications. They won the Class AAA title each of the last two seasons to go with five consecutive Class AA titles before that.<br /> <br /> The Lady Wolves moved up to Class AAAA in 2014 but are expected to be one of the favorites to win it all again. They return seven starters from last year's title team, including their top two pitchers in seniors Bria Bush (Tennessee-commit) and Tessa Daniels (Florida State-commit). Seniors Jordan Deep (2B, Ga. Tech-commit) and Remy Hasty (OF, Ga. State-commit) all are four-year starters. Sydney Stavro (Sr., OF) snd juniors Drew Puckett (SS) and Baylee Sexton (3B) are three-year starters.<br /> <br /> "We have a lot of talent returning and we have a lot of girls who are ready to move up and contribute," head coach Tony Wolfe said. "Class AAAA will be a new challenge but we're ready to face it."<br /> <br /> Friday is the official opening of the 2014 season and once again the annual Lanier Pointe softball tournament will kick things off in the area at the Lanier Pointe Softball Complex.<br /> <br /> The 2014 tournament figures to be one of its most competitive yet with six teams in the field that advanced to the state playoffs in 2013, highlighted by Commerce, which advanced to Columbus and the Elite 8 last season in Class A Public, and several others that narrowly missed out of the playoffs.<br /> <br /> The tournament format will change this year with four, five-team brackets playing a five-game round-robin schedule. There will no longer be gold or silver bracket rounds to determine a champion of the tournament.<br /> <br /> "The GHSA rules changes dictated that we have just a round-robin format and no time limits so that means no championship-type brackets so that everyone is guaranteed five games but doesn't have to play five games in one day like in the past," Lanier Pointe Softball Complex Director Hank Heffner said. "That was a little rough for some of the teams that didn't have two or three quality pitchers. But their should still be some exciting games out here."<br /> <br /> The Field 1 bracket is expected to be the toughest with four playoffs teams from last year -- Commerce, Banks County, Union County, and Habersham County -- in the same bracket. Fannin County in the Field 3 bracket also advanced to the playoffs in Class AAA last year and East Hall leads the Field 4 bracket as the only playoff team from last season.<br /> <br /> For Commerce, coach Pam Canup is looking for another possible run to Columbus in Class A Public. The Lady Tigers will have a solid anchor returning their top pitcher, sophomore Ansley Bowen, from last season.<br /> <br /> "Ansley is back and is still improving and she did a great job for us last year," Canup said. "We have our entire infield coming back and four of our top hitters so I feel like we have a good shot (at the playoffs and a trip to Columbus)."<br /> <br /> Bowen along with senior Rachel Floyd (3B), junior Mattie Canup (C), and sophomore Morgan Partin (SS) give Commerce a solid anchor to the lineup. Canup said senior Anna Flint (1B) should be a player to watch for for the Lady Tigers.<br /> <br /> Buford will open its season Friday against 2013 Class A Private state runner-up Georgia Military College and then will play Class AAAAAA state playoff teams South Forsyth and Milton on Saturday. The Lady Wolves will then the following week play in a round-robin tournament in Dalton featuring four of last year's state title teams in Northwest Whitfield (AAAA), Buford (AAA), Calhoun (AA), and Gordon Lee (A).<br /> <br /> "That should be a fun tournament," Wolfe said. "No one has put something like this together before so I'm real interested in how we do." <br /> <br /> As for who else to watch for in 2014 to make playoff runs, in Class AAAAAA, North Gwinnett out of Region 7-AAAAAA advanced to Columbus and the Elite 8 last season. Habersham Central and Mill Creek, also from 7-AAAAAA, lost in the first round and second rounds, respectively. North Forsyth from 6-AAAAAA lost in the first round of the playoffs. All four teams are expected once again to challenge for playoff spots.<br /> <br /> In Class AAAAA, Winder-Barrow out of Region 8-AAAAA advanced to Columbus last season and should be one of the favorites from 8-AAAAA to have a shot at returning to Columbus. Lanier and Flowery Branch should be improved in Region 8-AAAAA and challenge for playoff spots this season.<br /> <br /> In Class AAAA, Buford, White County, and North Hall moved up to join Region 8-AAAA which should make for a very competitive race for the four playoff spots along with North Oconee and Walnut Grove.<br /> <br /> In Class AAA, Lumpkin County moved down from Class AAAA after advancing to the playoffs in Class AAAA last season. The Lady Indians, however, were knocked out in first round. Jackson County advanced to the second round while Banks County and East Hall were knocked out in the first round. Region 7-AAA should be very wide-open with just East Hall and Fannin County as the only teams in the revamped region to make the playoffs last season. Jefferson, which moved up to Region 8-AAA, should battle with cross-town rival Jackson County for the region title.<br /> <br /> In Class AA, Union County advanced to the playoffs but expect Region 8-AA to be very competitive and wide-open, similar to 7-AAA.
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