BUFORD — Following a 10-year run of unprecedented success -- 10 consecutive state titles spanning four different classifications -- it’s hard to believe the Buford softball program is on a four-year championship drought.
That could all change in 2020 as the Lady Wolves may have one of their most talented, and youngest, groups in recent memory.
The Lady Wolves, who are ranked No. 1 in Class 6A, will lead 11 northeast Georgia area teams into the 2020 state playoffs, which begin Monday around the state.
The early format is the same as in years past with best-of-three series’ at the home of the higher-seeded team in the first two rounds. The most notable change will be that instead of taking the Elite 8 into a double-elimination format in Columbus, the quarterfinals also will be a best-of-three with only the Final Four in each classification making the trek to the Olympic Softball Complex.
“I think that’s going to make it a little tougher to get to Columbus because you’re going to have some of the top two or three teams in every classification meet in the quarterfinals,” long-time Buford coach Tony Wolfe said. “I like the Elite 8 format in Columbus because I feel you get the best two teams by Saturday. But like everyone else, we have to go with the format we have.”
Depending on the pitching matchup, Wolfe could deploy as many as four freshmen starters, something he has not had going back nearly 10 years. The 2011 team featured several rising freshmen that eventually finished with 140 wins (the most in a four-year span) and produced nine Division I prospects by their senior seasons.
This year’s group is 26-4, the most wins so far since the 2016 state title team. And the freshmen are having huge impacts.
Shortstop Mackenzie Pickens leads the team in average (.463), hits (44), home runs (8), RBI (47), and runs scored (42). Twin sister Madison Pickens (C/OF) has a .369 average with 16 RBI; outfielder Tavye Borders is hitting .392 in 27 games; and Emma Grace Williams has established herself as one of the state’s best in the circle (10-1, 3 SV, 1.72 ERA, 65 IP, 9 CG, 3 SH, 65K).
“This group is very similar to that 2011 team because we only have a few seniors and a talented group of young girls,” Wolfe said. “I don’t know yet if you can say they’re as good as that group when you saw how many of them went on to play Division I. But I do think this group already has exceeded expectations. They are a fun group to be around.”
But Wolfe said without seniors like Abbi Perkins (.414 BA, 7 HR, 40 RBI) to provide that needed leadership, the youngsters would not be as far along as they are.
“Abbi is a tremendous leader, as are all our seniors, like Emmy Hall and Alicia Ross. They keep the younger girls calm,” Wolfe said. “You can have talented young players but to really be successful you have to have quality leadership and these seniors have really led the way. We wouldn’t be where we are without them.”
Buford, the Region 8-6A champion, opens the Class 6A playoffs on Monday at home against Region 5-6A No. 4 seed East Paulding. The first two games will begin at 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. at the Buford Softball Complex with Game 3, if necessary, on Tuesday.
“We’ve never played them but they are in a good region so we’re preparing for a tough series,” Wolfe said. “Class 6A traditionally has been a tough classification so we’re going to have to play well to advance each round.”
Three other teams come in as region champs. Flowery Branch (18-3) showed it should be a contender in Class 4A after completing a perfect run in a deep Region 8-4A. The Lady Falcons open at home on Monday against Region 5-4A No. 4 seed Luella.
Banks County, the defending Class 2A state champions, shook off a tough start to the season to repeat as Region 8-2A champions. The Lady Leopards will get things started at home against Region 5-2A No. 4 seed Callaway.
And Commerce, which finished third in Class A Public in 2019, won Region 8-A Public and will open its playoffs against Region 5-A Public No. 4 seed Chattahoochee County at home.
(Look below for the entire first round schedule for northeast Georgia area teams:)
STATE PLAYOFFS 1st ROUND, Oct. 19-20
(Best-of-3 format at higher seeded team)
(Games 1 & 2 on Monday; Game 3, if necessary, on Tuesday)
East Paulding (Region 5, Seed 4) at Buford (Region 8, Seed 1)
Habersham Central (R8, S4) at Alexander (R5, S1)
Fayette County (R5, S4) at Flowery Branch (R8, S1)
Jefferson (R8, R3) at Luella (R5, S2)
North Hall (R7, S4) at Coahulla Crekk (R6, S1)
Rockmart (R6, S3) at Lumpkin County (R7, S2)
White County (R7, S3) at Sonoraville R6, S2)
Callaway (R5, S4) at Banks County (R8, S1)
Rabun County (R8, S4) at Bremen (R5, S1)
Union County (R8, S3) at Heard County (R5, S2)
CLASS A PUBLIC
Chattahoochee County (R5, S4) at Commerce (R8, S1)