SPORTS FEATURE: State Champs! Raiders return with school's first-ever fastpitch softball title
The Courier Herald – Tuesday, November 1, 2022
For the hundred or so players, coaches and supporters wearing blue and white in Columbus Saturday afternoon, and more who gathered to welcome the West Laurens team bus to the school softball complex at around 10 p.m. later that evening, it was indeed a great day to be a Raider.
Maybe even one of the best ever.
Championship dreams became a reality for 17 West Laurens players and their coaches Saturday in a 2-1 victory over Whitewater to capture the AAAA state title on the final day of the GHSA softball tournament.
The Raiders, after conquering the winner's bracket along with the last two defending state champs, Heritage (Ringgold) and Central (Carrollton), in the days leading up, faced the Whitewater Wildcats in need of only one win, out of two possible games, to clinch the state crown.
Both games ended with 2-1 finals, Whitewater hanging on for the win in the opener. But West Laurens bounced back, climbing from an early deficit in the do-or-die "if" game for the decisive win.
And after an emotional celebration on the field at South Commons Complex and what would probably go down for many as the best postgame Zaxby's meal ever, the Raiders made their way back to Dexter, where a crowd lined the driveway into the athletic plaza on a chilly Saturday night to welcome them home.
Their Laurens County Schools bus, with the escort of a sheriff's cruiser, rolled into the parking lot and down the hill as players dangled from the windows painted with their names and numbers.
Head coach Mike Thompson was first off the bus, holding the bright silver trophy cup in hands that he raised aloft to a roar from the crowd.
Leading the celebration as the rest of the team exited the bus was McKenzie Maddox, who came prepared with a portable speaker cued up to blast "All I Do Is Win," for teammates to join in.
She had the assists on both the last two putouts of the game, making a play that's become automatic on both grounders to short with a swift throw over to first. And she was soon in the middle of a huge pile of Raiders on the third base side of the infield.
For the senior, who is one of the three on the team who are each set to continue playing softball in college next year, the emotions of finishing her high school fastpitch career on top were indescribable.
"It was amazing," she said. "It being your senior year and you winning state, it's unbelievable. I have no words. It's the greatest feeling. The emotions for everyone, it's just awesome."
Two runs in the fourth inning, on a sequence of big swings by Stephanie Perry and K.K. Wilson, along with seniors Alyssa Jones and Makayala Register, gave the Raiders their only lead of the entire day. But they hung onto it, getting eight of the last the nine outs in order as postseason ace Tannah Cobb shut the door.
A rush of blue uniforms exploded from the dugout onto the field from the moment of the last out, but Thompson, waiting at the edge of the fence, was first onto the field with both fists held in the air.
"It was just amazing," Thompson said. "Words can't describe it."
Longtime assistant Jody Pollock followed right behind the team, though pausing for a moment as he knelt just outside the dugout entrance to soak it all in before joining the ruckus on the field.
For these two longtime Raider coaches, along with assistant April Swope, getting to this moment definitely wasn't easy, to echo the set of catch phrases they use daily to describe the high buy-in set for players in- and out-of-season, and that "It ain't for everybody."
They have also endured more than their share of adversity, coming under repeated political fire from opponents around the school and community as recently as the past offseason. And it'd be hard to think plenty of that journey didn't come back to mind as the last game went final.
Same for players, many of whom called back memories of long, grueling summer workouts which were usually spent swinging plenty more kettle bells than bats, throwing more weights around than softballs, and running far more hills than bases.
"All our hard work the past four years, all of our summers, it finally paid off," said senior Alyssa Jones. "I didn't want anything but this for the end of this season."
The moment was one they had envisioned each of the last two seasons, which also came to an end in Columbus just a game or two short of the chance to claim the state's ultimate softball prize.
This year's state tournament berth was the program's 10th ever, and its sixth as one of the last three left in the running. Teams of 2010, '12, '17 and '21 each finished third, and a 2011 squad made the closest brush with a state title, as AAA state runner-up.
Both of the last two years, the Raiders had to fight their way from the loser's bracket back into the last day of competition after an opening loss. This time, they were able to run the table up until a first loss Saturday to Whitewater, which they quickly atoned for.
West Laurens (30-4, 12-0 region 2-AAAA) brought a 26-game win streak into the day, but would have gladly made the trade of a perfect postseason finish for the opportunity to lift the trophy at day's end 10 times out of 10.
And for Thompson, it was more hands than just the 21 representing West Laurens players and staff on the postseason roster who helped hoist that long-coveted piece of hardware.
"All the years of being so close, you know what really crossed my mind? All those girls that had played for us all those years, since back when I started in '04, and all those girls that have meant so much to our program and have gotten so close," he said. "They're what's built it to where it is today. That's what was really going through my mind in that last inning. I kept telling myself those girls deserve it as much as these girls.
"All the kids that have played for us deserve it. These girls deserved it and they won it, and they played their tails off all week. But I couldn't stop thinking about all those kids that have played for us, and have poured everything into helping build this program into what it is to get to this point."
The Raiders had a huge turnout for Saturday's final-round games in Columbus.
And in addition to the hundreds who made the trip, plenty more were following, thanks to modern technology, from back home on Facebook Live courtesy of a daily stream by Raider softball parent Kenny Jones.
He made these webcasts a postseason tradition starting with West Laurens' playoff baseball run of 2021, and continuing at this past spring's slowpitch softball state tourney, when games during the school day had many WLHS teachers playing the stream during class so that students wouldn't have to sneakily watch on their phones.
Folks tuned in to follow the action, but stayed for the witty commentary and quick quips that began to taper off by the end of Saturday's second game as Jones' voice began to give out from the week of vocal support from right behind home plate.
The network got some strong ratings the entire playoffs, but particularly on Saturday of the state tournament, when anywhere from 150 to 250 were tuned in at any given point, even with the second game running head-to-head with the first half of Georgia-Florida.
Besides the celebration to follow the championship game, the coolest moment from the entire week easily came during the Raiders' opening game on Wednesday, when the stream captured the winning moment and his spontaneous joy when daughter Alyssa hit her walk-off solo home run to beat Heritage.
The highlight clip of the big swing is one they'll both be able to look back on and relive, not only to recapture the excitement of this state title run, but years of school and travel ball they and other Raider softball families have enjoyed together.
"I love how proud of me he is," Alyssa said. "He's shown me nothing but love and support the past 15 years that I've played, and I just love that he supports me, and he's proud of me no matter what."
Senior leadership over the two-week playoff journey certainly mattered. Each of the Raiders' three, in addition to hitting a home run in one of the state tournament's first set of games, brought some valuable insight as to what it'd take to win it all in Columbus from having been there – along with their junior teammates – the two years before.
"I think that paid off," Thompson said.
But Maddox, Jones and Register – he added – meant just as much for their role as standard-setters in the season leading up as for their clutch plays at the end of the road.
"But it's not necessarily what they do on the field, it's all the little things they do behind the scenes, encouraging other girls and giving devotions. They truly wanted to win it not for themselves, but for their teammates," Thompson said. "They're all three very unselfish. They'll do anything to win for the other girls and do well for them... We certainly wouldn't be here without those three."
High school softball isn't much unlike baseball in that winning late in October is rarely about outright production as much as it is plays made in the critical moments. West Laurens, earlier in the week, was outhit in two of the first three games it played, and on Saturday, matched Whitewater's lineup knock-for-knock, 3-3 in the opening game and 5-5 in the last.
But all week, the Raiders seemed to come through with the clutch swings, pitches and defensive plays when they needed them most.
And it was those spots, as well as on Saturday when the early setback took away any seeming guarantee that they'd be able to take care of business, that they leaned on the lessons from previous state tournament trips about what it would take to finish their state championship bid.
"There needed to be a lot of fight," Maddox said. "You couldn't ever give up. Every game is a battle. It doesn't matter who you play. Just fight to the last out."