Coming off a strange 2020 COVID-related season, the 2021 girls softball season was expected to be a rebuilding year for most of the Northeast Georgia area.
Looks were deceiving. More than a dozen teams made the Georgia High School Association state playoffs in 2021 -- slightly up from the year before -- with four advancing to Columbus. Buford finished fourth in Class 6A with Flowery Branch (4A), Dawson County (3A), and Union County (2A) all making it to the Elite 8.
Once again, early talk has the 2022 campaign, which officially opens on Thursday around the state, being another rebuilding year for the area as a whole. Reclassification and many programs moving up in class has created some uncertainty and will be a huge challenge for many.
However, for the first time in many years, the numbers are up and some young, talented players may be ready for breakout seasons.
Buford moves up to Class 7A for the first time and into a tough Region 8-7A. But the Lady Wolves are no strangers to playing teams in the state’s highest classification. They went 5-0-1 against 7A teams last season.
And they should be poised to be in the middle of things returning seven starters, including senior southpaw pitcher Olivia Duncan, who will handle the bulk of the pitching duties. Junior Emma Grace Williams also returns in the circle and second-year coach Trent Adams said he will also try to work in a pair of talented freshmen, Caroline Stanton and Addie Rackley, in the circle as well.
Defensively, juniors Adriana Martinez (first base), Mackenzie Pickens (shortstop), her twin sister Madison Pickens (catcher), Tavye Borders (outfield) also return to anchor their middle defense. That group also will anchor the lineup along with senior Emma Castorri (third base) and sophomore Abby McKinnis (outfield). Senior Jen Ramirez, who saw limited action in 2021, will take over at second base.
“We have a lot of girls that got a lot of experience last year,” Adams said. “Our biggest issue at the end of last year was just getting consistent offense so having that experience in Columbus for the girls was huge. They are more confident coming into this season for sure.
“Our pitching should be strong, we have a solid group up the middle, and the lineup I think will be much-improved. We’re excited about moving up (to Class 7A) and I feel like we’re going to be very competitive.”
The Lady Wolves will open their season against defending Class 7A state champion North Gwinnett on Wednesday at their new facility. They also will be in the same region as Mill Creek, who finished third overall in 2021, and Dacula, which also made Columbus in 6A last season.
“It’s going to be a tough region but we’ve played a lot of 7A teams over the years so we’re familiar with how difficult it will be,” Adams said. “Our goal is to get back to Columbus and then go from there.”
Flowery Branch coach Blake Cagle, whose Lady Falcons moved up from Class 4A to 5A and into a difficult Region 8-5A, is hoping their first-ever trip to Columbus has given the program a boost.
“We graduated a big senior class but coming into this season our numbers are up,” Cagle said. “I think a lot of programs, from the coaches I’ve talked to, also have seen increases in the number of girls coming out to play. That’s a very positive sign.
“I think us making it to Columbus also has helped (the numbers). We’re going to try and use that to keep the momentum rolling.”
Last year, three teams from Region 8-4A, including the No. 4-seed Lady Falcons, advanced to Elite 8. Region 8-5A had all four teams sweep into the second round in 2021, with Loganville advancing to Columbus and finishing third overall.
The new 8-5A configuration has five of the seven teams coming off playoff appearances. Branch does return senior pitcher Nikki Harris, a North Carolina-commit, with junior Casey Beaver expected to pace the offense. But they are also having to replace six starters from 2021.
“We lost some really good players. We have the pieces I think, we just have to put them in the right places,” Cagle said. “We’re in a tough region again and it will be a challenge. But I think that was one reason we had success in the playoffs last year. We played state playoff-type games almost the whole second half of the season because any one game could’ve cost us a playoff spot.”
East Hall coach Anuel Burce, whose Lady Vikings missed out on the playoffs in 2021 by just one game, said it will be another huge challenge in Region 8-4A, which still has North Oconee and Madison County, both of whom made it to Columbus, as well as 2021 Region 7-3A champion East Forsyth moving up. Throw in perennial playoff stalwart Walnut Grove, 7-3A runner-up Cherokee Bluff, and an improving North Hall and 8-4A may once again be the toughest region in the state, any classification.
The Lady Vikings will be young as sophomore Amari Burce will assume the full-time pitching duties with no real No. 2 to back her up, at least early on. They also lost their top three hitters from 2021 but do return seniors Callie Dale (centerfield) and Ansley Ivey (third base).
“We will be young overall and have several holes on the field and in the lineup to fill,” Burce said. “Amari will give us a chance in every game but we will need to have some things fall our way, and we’re going to have to stay healthy. Our biggest need is to develop a No. 2 pitcher.
“As far as the region, it’s going to be very, very tough once again. But I feel that if we can get some of the younger girls up to speed we can compete for a playoff spot.”
The Lady Vikings will open their season and Region 8-4A play on Tuesday, Aug. 9 at home against North Oconee.
Most of the 8-4A teams will open this weekend but will jump headlong into region play beginning on Tuesday. All eight teams will be in action with some key games right off the bat, highlighted by the Lady Vikings-North Oconee opener, Chestatee traveling to Madison County, and North Hall playing host to East Forsyth.
On the surface, Region 7-3A appears wide-open with the top two teams from 2021 -- East Forsyth and Cherokee Bluff -- moving up to Class 4A. But 2021 Class A Private state champion Wesleyan has taken one spot and traditional power Pickens the other. Playoff teams Dawson County and White County return and should be competitive once again.
For Region 8-6A, North Forsyth, which won Region 6-7A in 2021 but was knocked off in the first round by eventual state runner-up Mill Creek, moves down and should be an overwhelming favorite to win the region. However, of the seven teams that make up the new region, only Jackson County (Class 5A) advanced past the first round of the playoffs in 2021.