SPORTS RECAP: One(s) to remember – Four single-run wins, Saturday comeback to defeat Whitewater, get West Laurens over championship hump in Columbus
The Courier Herald – Tuesday, Nov. 1, 2022
Whitewater, with its No. 2 pitcher in the circle, managed to edge West Laurens 2-1 in the first game of Saturday's final round in the GHSA softball championships.
But the Wildcats, of Fayetteville, would have had to beat the Raiders twice to deny them the AAAA state title.
And West Laurens didn't let that happen, bouncing back from its first loss of the week, and the entire postseason, to flip the script with a victory of the same final in the game to follow.
The Raiders, this time knocking off Whitewater's ace pitcher, secured their decisive fourth win of the weeklong tournament, and a first state softball title in school history.
Field 5 of Columbus' South Commons Softball Complex, which by late Saturday afternoon had turned into Dexter West, was roused to a frenzy with the final out that sent players sprinting from the dugout, and droves of West Laurens fans from their lawn chairs and onto the field in postgame hysteria.
Even with several hours to process it upon arriving home Saturday night, most Raider players still had trouble coming up with the words to sum up their emotions in the championship moment.
"It was super exciting," said senior Makayla Register. "It's nothing like I had ever felt before."
"It was kind of undescribable," said winning pitcher Tannah Cobb. "I've never felt that happen before. I don't even know how to describe it."
West Laurens (30-4, 12-0 region 2-AAAA) started the day in prime position, after sweeping the winner's bracket over three games from Wednesday through Friday, all in dramatic fashion.
After defeating Heritage (Ringgold) 2-1 and Walnut Grove 6-5, both on game-winning or go-ahead rallies featuring solo home runs in the seventh innings, the Raiders clinched their berth in the finals with a 2-1 victory over defending state champion Central, of Carrollton, Friday night.
Whitewater, after falling to Walnut in a 2-1 heartbreaker to open the tournament Wednesday, had taken the longest path out of the loser's bracket to get to Saturday, battling past Heritage, East Forsyth and Islands – all by run rule – before plowing past Central in another shutout, 3-0, early Saturday to earn its shot at West Laurens.
And the Wildcats, their unfortunate start notwithstanding, might have been the real team to beat of the entire tournament.
Whitewater, which had arrived in Columbus a perfect 30-0, was led by a pair of Division 1 pitching prospects, of which the Raiders faced both on Saturday.
In game 1, they saw the second of those, in Kennesaw State-commit Emma Friedel, who struck out 12 and held West Laurens to only three hits, despite issuing five walks.
But only one of the free passes for the Raiders turned to a run, that in the third inning when Stephanie Perry advanced on two passed balls and came home on Register's RBI double.
Whitewater clubbed solo home runs in the second and third, by Braeden Hale and Jillian Williams respectively, to open an early 2-0 lead that the Raiders could only cut in half.
For the do-or-die game 2, the Wildcats went back to Georgia Tech commit Makayla Coffield, who they rested after having pitched a fourth-straight elimination game before lunchtime.
She struck out 10, and after leading off with a single, moving up on a sacrifice bunt and scoring on Leah Johnson's RBI single in the first, had a 1-0 lead to work with before even stepping into the circle.
Coffield, through three frames, was painting edges of the strike zone, with Raider hitters left frozen looking at strikes on the outside corner. And West Laurens, held to just the first of its only five hits on the day with Halley Nobles' single to spoil a perfect first nine in the third, went to the fateful fourth inning desperate to reverse the trend that had carried over from game 1.
"It was tough," said West Laurens head coach Mike Thompson. "(Coffield) had just mowed pretty much everybody all year. We put together some great at-bats, and we kept telling ourself that if we could ever get a lead that we thought we could change the momentum a little bit."
In hindsight, this would have likely been the Raiders' only opening to strike, albeit without an unneeded last chance in the seventh that remained in their back pocket. At-bats in the fifth and sixth were limited to one hit and a stolen base each by McKenzie Maddox and Alyssa Jones.
Perry cranked out a single to lead off the fourth-inning rally, and Register followed with a base hit. The two advanced to scoring position on a passed ball, before Jones punched one to right in an extended at-bat for the RBI that tied the game at 1.
"She came up with that big hit," Thompson said. "She fouled some balls off, and came up with a big hit right there to get on."
Freshman K.K. Wilson stepped to the plate with runners at the corners and only one out. And Thompson faced a dilemma on how to play his cards.
"I was trying to squeeze with one out, 'cause we do that a lot," he said. "And I gave the sign for it, and K.K. looked at me kind of funny, and called time. And I was like, 'K.K., they know what we're gonna do now. So now we've gotta swing.'"
The freshman came through with a hard-hit ball to deep right-center that gave Register plenty of time to score the go-ahead run from third on a sacrifice fly.
"She's such a good hitter... Something in my gut said, let her swing, and she'll at least put a ball in play. And she did," Thompson said. "She squared one up pretty good and hit a long fly ball.
"And then my nerves got back on me a little bit, then. 'Cause then the reality set in that, hey, we've really got a chance to win this thing now. Tannah (Cobb) was throwing so good. She had kind of caught her second wind a little bit. Really, at that point, it was, 'Can we get enough outs at this point?'"
Cobb had made every postseason start for the Raiders since the first game of their regional the week prior, shutting down Trinity of Sharpsburg with a five-inning perfect game in the clincher.
Thompson elected to stay with the junior in the circle in the early games of the state tournament, in part, because of her proverbial "hot hand." But from a matchup standpoint, her off-speed stuff seemed to put West Laurens in the best position to keep some potent opposing hitters at bay.
"She's thrown good all year, and all our girls have," Thompson said. "I didn't have any second guesses if I'd've had to go to Alyssa or Register or even Emilee Garrett. I was confident going with any of those girls, but Tannah had just thrown so good there down the stretch. And her changeup was so good. We felt like we had to change speeds in order to get some of those hitters out."
The junior pitched a series of gems over the days leading up, holding Heritage to one run on Wednesday and helping the Raiders win a stare-down in Thursday's shootout against Grove.
She matched her total of eight strikeouts from the two previous games in Friday's victory over Central, easily her best outing of the week, allowing just two hits and walking a single runner on her first free pass of the entire tournament.
Nothing came for Central of the base knock by Karley Fuller, or the base on balls, after both were left on base in the first inning.
Emma Shoemaker hit a solo homer with two outs in the third inning for the Lions' only run of the game, which briefly tied the score. But the rest of Cobb's innings, 4-7, were a perfect 1-2-3.
"She struggled a little bit getting her curveball over, and then we talked about it, we debated on it: alright, do we go with Alyssa on Friday in the winner's bracket championship, or do we stay with Tannah?" he said. "We just felt like we had to change speeds a little better. So we said we're gonna go with Tannah, but we're going short leash. But my gut kept telling me to stick with Tannah. She came back and two-hit the defending state champs. She only made one mistake, and the girl hit the home run."
That performance made it "a no-doubter" that Cobb would get the nod for Saturday's game 1, in which she fanned six batters. And as she returned to the circle for game 2, Whitewater opened up another early lead that had Raider coaches almost ready to call on Jones to enter from the pen.
"She seemed to just tire, and I told Coach Pollock, look, she's run out of steam. She's tired. She's thrown a lot," Thompson said.
But as with Thursday's game, they stuck it out. And Cobb rode out the early bumps in the road and took them to the finish line, striking out two and pitching her way out of some major trouble spots along the way.
She stranded two key runners on base after Whitewater's score at the end of one, and did the same in the fourth, after a Hale single and an error put runners at second and third.
Williams reached on a base hit in the fifth, and stole second, but groundouts retired the rest of the side after Cobb's strikeout in the first at-bat.
From there, the rest of her six outs were clockwork.
"She kind of caught her second wind a little bit," Thompson said. "She kept getting outs. We rolled on to about the fourth inning, then when we scored and went back up, it was like a light switch came back on, and there was no pulling her then. The other girls had confidence at that point. And we just rode her right there."
Cobb, who was in and out of her groove throughout the week, said the steady defense behind her was a major source of assurance in the pressure moments of the games.
"(It was) my teammates backing me up in the field," Cobb said. "I had confidence that they would be making the plays behind me, and I didn't have to stress as much making the perfect pitch every time."
No ball left the yard for the Raiders on Saturday, though the earlier portion of the week was an outstanding display of clutch power by the three West Laurens seniors, who hit a critical solo home run in each of the three wins to reach the final round.
Jones' walk-off to beat Heritage broke a 1-1 tie in the bottom of the seventh, perhaps the catalyst for the whole week in a tight game that gave them the nudge they needed.
"It was nothing but pure joy," Jones said, describing the emotions of the game-winning shot. "It made my whole world at the fact that we could continue playing cause of something that I did."
Register, who tagged up for the go-ahead run in Saturday's win, hit hers in similar fashion on Thursday against Walnut Grove, though in the top half of the seventh when she admits a game-changing long-ball was not what she envisioned in the leadoff at-bat.
"I had kind of been struggling, so I was just praying that I could make some solid contact and allow my team to move me around the bases," Register said. "And then she threw me a pitch I had been waiting on a little low and on the inside corner, and I just took it."
The Warriors wound up answering the solo shot with their own, but a later insurance run came in handy, and a third out with runners on second and third helped the Raiders extract the 6-5 win.
Maddox, on a 1-1 count, lumberjacked a letter-high pitch over the left field fence to open the scoring in the first at-bat of the Central game on Friday.
"All three of them were essentially game-winners," Thompson said. "Alyssa had the walk-off. Register hit a big home run. Kenzie leading off the game in the winner's bracket game, I thought that really set the tone. I think it shocked Central Carrollton a little bit. They weren't expecting that, and it gave us some fire."
West Laurens would add one more run, just after Central tied the count, in a four-hit fourth inning. A Perry double, and Jones single, set the stage for Wilson's RBI to untie the contest just ahead of four perfect innings from Cobb to silence the Lions – who'd knocked the Raiders from the winner's bracket last year – the rest of the way.
"That game was really big," Maddox said. "Everybody thought of last year, when we played them. It was a tough loss against them. We knew they were a great team and they had great pitching, defense overall. Just the feeling of hitting (the leadoff home run), and us leading and the energy brought in that game was amazing."
There were numerous contributors all over the roster, but it's no question that Jones, Maddox and Register were players who took the team on their shoulders to win this state crown. The three home runs over the tournament, and three hits in Saturday's clinching game, that belonged one each to the senior trio doesn't seem a coincidental detail at all.
"For those three girls to lead like they did, really all year, is just amazing," Thompson said. "They're three great kids. They're great players, and they just kind of said, 'Look, we're not losing.' All three of them played such a great tournament."