SPORTS RECAP: Pitcher perfect – With Cobb's spotless start, Raiders blank Lions for second time, clinch third-straight berth in state tourney
The Courier Herald – October 22, 2022
West Laurens didn't just go out on a high note, it went out on a perfect one in its final home game of the season Wednesday, an 8-0 shutout of Trinity-Sharpsburg.
The game, in the defensive halves, was 15-up, 15-down in the circle for Tannah Cobb, who struck out three, and blanked the Lions for a second time in the two-day GHSA regional.
"That was impressive right there, what she just did," said West Laurens head coach Mike Thompson. "I felt like she hadn't given up any hits. Normally, I don't like to think about it during a game. But at the end, somebody said, 'That was a perfect game, wasn't it?' And I said, 'Yep, I think it was.'"
After back-to-back shutout victories Tuesday, the Raiders (26-3, 12-0 region 2-AAAA) needed just the one more on Wednesday afternoon to complete a literal clean sweep of the regional tourney, and take their active win streak to 23 games.
They didn't allow a single run in wins of 17-0 (over Southeast Bulloch), 6-0 and 8-0 (against Trinity) that clinch a third-straight berth among Georgia's final eight in the state playoffs. Next stop is Columbus, and the GHSA AAAA state tournament beginning Tuesday.
All three were head-turners, but Wednesday's commanding performance especially so, even in the eyes of a West Laurens head coach who is not easily blown away as he was by his team's dominant pitching and unerring play in the field. And their play to open the 2022 postseason, he said, should serve as a message to the rest of the state as to the intentions of team that's played similar softball all season, and knows it can win it all.
"I feel like it maybe makes a statement hopefully to the other folks that are still in, and says hey, they're legit, and they're coming to win it, they're coming to take a shot at it," Thompson said.
Wednesday's final was a five-inning affair, which ended by run rule in the bottom half of the last on a walk-off passed ball.
With the Raiders leading 7-0, Makayla Register sent a double to center to lead off the inning, and advanced to third on a first pitch that got away from the Lions battery. She wasn't able to score on an Alyssa Jones' infield single in the next at-bat, but hustled home with no play after another pitch got past the Trinity catcher for the winning eighth run just after K.K. Wilson strode to the plate.
Teammates had burst from the dugout to celebrate before she even touched home, and encircled the senior in a big group hug. The first there was fellow class of 2023 member McKenzie Maddox, who leapt up and climbed over the shoulders of her first baseman as others, including the third and final senior Jones, gathered 'round.
The trio each contributed one hit to the team's seven, Register and Maddox with a combined three RBIs to lead the Raider lineup.
And Register wasn't the only West Laurens player to get a full-team reception at home plate Wednesday afternoon, the other freshman CheyAnn Phillips after taking a pitch out to center on a solo home run the inning before.
Her deep fly ball banged off the top of the fence, just beyond the reach of Trinity outfielder Seanna Johnson, and bounced out of the park to tack on the second of two runs in the inning, and make the West Laurens lead 7-0.
A Wilson sac fly earlier in the inning drove home the other run. The offense was just as smooth sailing for the Raiders, who scored their other five runs in the second frame on just three hits.
A walk and an error to lead off the inning, followed by a Wilson single up the middle, loaded the bases for Phillips to get her first of two RBIs on the day with a fielder's choice groundout.
Kaylee Loyd squeezed in a second with a bunt, and after a walk, the Raiders got back-to-back hits from Maddox, on a two-RBI double, and Cobb, on an RBI single.
West Laurens' flawless fielding included several softly hit pop flies and routine grounders, but also some more challenging plays that threatened the perfect-game bid. Right fielder Kaylee Loyd ran down a catch in no-man's land for the second out of the second inning.
In the fourth, Maddox made perhaps the top defensive play for the Raiders all season, bare-handing a two-hopper well outside her immediate range at short and zipping a quick throw to first to deny Cacie Cutright a first hit of the game.
"The play she made at short is about as good of a play as you're gonna see at any level," Thompson said. "That was pretty spectacular."
Trinity, though still held without a run, had scratched out three hits against Cobb on Tuesday, the junior striking out two in the winner's bracket semifinal. She stepped things up even more for the clinching game Wednesday.
"We didn't think she threw as good yesterday, thought she was a little sluggish," Thompson said. "She was on her game today, now. She was sharp. She hit her spots, she made all the pitches she needed to make. And they've got a couple of kids that can really swing it... We did a really good job and played great defense."
West Laurens, the third-best AAAA team according to MaxPreps power rankings, has given up only 54 runs on the year, and added the three from this week, fired 17 shutouts.
"I think it's a testament to our pitchers, and how good a job they do," Thompson said. "Not just the two that got to throw this week, but all four (Register, Jones and Emilee Garrett rounding out the season rotation). One of the other coaches from the other teams asked me about our pitching staff, and I said, 'We've really got four girls that I feel like I can run out there against anybody, and we feel like we can get a win.' Because they've all four thrown great, and I think their competitiveness, period, and their competitiveness with each other helps make them all better.
"Those girls work hard. It's a credit to their hard work."
West Laurens will battle defending state champion Heritage of Ringgold (22-6) in its opening game of the state tournament, beginning at 7 p.m. Tuesday night.
The rest of the tournament – following a double-elimination bracket – will feature Central of Carrollton, Wayne County, Islands (Savannah), East Forsyth, Walnut Grove and Whitewater.
"This is a tough year in 4A," Thompson said. "The top eight teams are all really talented. There are some dogs there, I think it's really top heavy with the top eight teams. There's eight that are going to be there, and I think all eight could possibly win it if it plays out like I think it was going to."
Action will continue through the championship round on Saturday, Oct. 29.
This will be the Raiders' third-straight trip to Columbus, although the road to get there has been different in each of those seasons.
Changes to the postseason due to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 reduced the tournament field to just four teams, adding a quarterfinal round to the playoffs, before a return to the usual eight teams with a traditional two-round bracket to lead in last fall. This year's state tournament introduced an NCAA-style regional format to qualify each of the final teams, by classification.
In both 2020 and 2021, West Laurens was handed a loss by the eventual state champion, Central in 2020 and Heritage in 2021, in its opening game. The Raiders would advance in the loser's bracket, but were the next-to-last team eliminated in '20 and a third runner-up in '21.
Both teams will stand in their way again next week.
Thompson said he likes the Raiders' chances as much as any year they've advanced to Columbus – now 10 total. There aren't many tournaments he remembers that have looked to be more competitive, either.
"It's a stacked field," he said. "This may be the toughest year in a long time, where every game could come down to one pitch. There are no easy games this time."