maddie johnson

The Lady Titans finished on top of Region 8-AAAA.

North Oconee High School’s softball team claimed the 2021 region title last Saturday with a 5-4 win over Flowery Branch. That victory gave the Lady Titans (16-10, 10-5 Region 8-AAAA) a No. 1 seed in the Class AAAA state playoffs. It gives them home field advantage through at least the first two rounds.

“It feels really good,” senior Casey Holloway said regarding the region championship. “I think this is the first time we're gonna host a playoff game in 10 years, so that's pretty cool.”

Last weekend’s game against Flowery Branch kept pace with the teams’ first two meetings of the year. Game one ended 3-2 in favor of North Oconee but the Lady Falcons took game two 3-0, setting up a rubber match with championship implications.

The regular season finale proved to be a tight contest, too.

Flowery Branch loaded the bases in the top of the first before Lady Titans starting pitcher Maddie Johnson escaped the jam.

Kendall Wells led off the bottom of the first with a homer, putting North Oconee ahead 1-0. That homer improved Wells’ season total to 10, which set a new single-season program record.

The 1-0 score held until the top of the fourth when Flowery Branch scored on a groundout. The Lady Falcons took their first lead in the top of the fifth on a two-RBI double.

North Oconee cut the deficit to 3-2 in the bottom of the fifth. Makayla Tomlinson singled with one out. Wells walked with two away before Johnson reached on an error, which also scored a run.

In the bottom of the seventh, Caroline Branch recorded a sacrifice fly RBI to score the tying run and make it a 3-3 game. North Oconee could not generate any further runs afterward, so the game went to extra innings.

With two on and two out in the top of the eighth, the Lady Falcons went ahead thanks to an RBI single.

The Lady Titans faced a one-run deficit with two outs and one runner on base in the bottom of the eighth. Head coach Billy Dooley called upon Skylar Jordan to pinch-hit in the big spot.

After taking strike one on the first pitch, Jordan connected on the second pitch and drove the ball over the right field fence for a walk-off, two-run homer.

“They called Skylar up and I was like, ‘Skylar, you've got this. You've hit amazing in the cages this week,’” Wells said. “Off the bat, everyone knew it was gone. It was awesome.”

The Lady Titans sought divine intervention during the tense final inning.

Wells said that she and a few other teammates noticed Bailey Bowen praying in the dugout and they decided to join her.

Eventually, most of the team was praying.

“Certain people were praying in certain corners, certain people were praying about certain things,” Johnson said. “We were all together as a team during that moment. We were all cheering, we were all up in the dugout.”

The days leading into Saturday’s game were chaotic.

Heavy rains drenched Oconee County and postponed the game from earlier in the week to the weekend. Additionally, the game was moved from North Oconee’s home field to Buford High School because Buford’s all-turf field was better suited for action after the heavy rainfall.

The Lady Titans could not conduct normal practices, so they used the baseball team’s indoor hitting facilities and worked on their offensive approach. To prep for Buford’s playing surface, they also practiced one day on the school’s turf football field so they would be aware of how the ball reacts on a turf surface as opposed to dirt and grass, Holloway said.

Baseball coach Jay Lasley, football coach Tyler Aurandt and their assistants came together in a community effort and helped the Lady Titans have a quality week of practice despite the weather.

“We had one of the best weeks of practices we've had,” Dooley said. “We don't always enjoy being inside but we're fortunate to have the indoor building. Coach Lasley is always willing to help us set up and get going. Even though we were basically in the cages all week and we practiced one day on the football field to get ready for the turf, they were really focused and they got after it. I was very confident going into the game on Saturday.”

North Oconee opens its playoff schedule Tuesday with a doubleheader against Mays High School out of Atlanta. Mays, the No. 4 seed out of Region 6-AAAA, went 9-7 during the regular season.

Game one will begin at 5 p.m. with game two set to follow right after. If necessary, a tiebreaker game would be played on Wednesday.

The Lady Titans’ 1-seed represents a big jump from their recent efforts. They made the playoffs last year as a 4-seed – the lowest possible position – after missing the playoffs entirely in 2019.

They want to take advantage of their favorable position and make a deep run.

Dooley said that will require quality at-bats. He pointed to a couple of lengthy plate appearances in the regular season by Bowen and Caroline Branch, who each fouled off numerous pitches in those at-bats, as examples of how a performance at the plate can affect a game even if it doesn’t result in a hit.

Dooley also wants the team to improve its defense. North Oconee made 65 errors during the regular season – good for an average of almost three errors per game.

North Oconee’s players intend to put those pieces together and continue their recent success in the most important games of the year.

“Play for each other and cheer each other on,” Holloway said. “We've come together as a team in these past few weeks really well. Our team chemistry has been the best it's been all season. We'll continue to play for each other and play to the best of our ability and do what we've been doing.”

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