It’s time for playoff softball in Watkinsville.
The Oconee County High School softball team reached the Class AAA state tournament by earning the No. 2 seed in Region 8-AAA. That guarantees the Lady Warriors home field advantage in at least the first round of competition.
Oconee County received the 2-seed after the originally scheduled Region 8-AAA tournament could not be completed due to the rainy weather that pelted Georgia last week. The Lady Warriors were scheduled to begin region tournament play last Wednesday at Franklin County High School but the teams were forced to forego the tournament and base region seeding on the regular season standings.
Though they were unable to play last week, the Lady Warriors spent plenty of time preparing for the playoffs.
“Honestly, it was business as usual as far as practice,” Oconee County head coach Zack Graham said. “Fortunately, we have an indoor facility, so we were able to get a lot of work inside, a lot of swings. We got in there and got some ground balls and pitchers threw some bullpen. It wasn't ideal because you want to be outside doing different things and we were able to get in what we needed to.”
Of course, there was some frustration among the Lady Warriors that they could not try for their second-straight region championship.
They used that frustration to their advantage last week while working on their skills indoors.
“It's not what we wanted to happen but you can't really do anything about Mother Nature,” Kate Newberry said. “We've gotten a lot more time hitting-wise than we have fielding-wise with the rain. We are lucky enough to have an inside facility that many people aren't, which I think is a big factor.”
The Lady Warriors saw improvements individually thanks to their work in the batting cages.
Newberry, for instance, said she aimed to increase her contact on pitches thrown to the outside portion of the plate.
The team also harped on bunting and defense during its recent practice sessions.
“We did bunting a lot to make sure we get that down,” Ava Moon said. “For the fielding, we've been doing backhands and forehands, just to make sure we have the fundamentals down.”
The Lady Warriors hope all that work makes up for any gaps that came with a two-week layoff between games. They played on Sept. 28 and will not play again until Wednesday in the first round of the playoffs.
Prior to the two weeks without games, the Oconee County offense had found a successful rhythm.
The Lady Warriors scored five or more runs during six of their last eight games.
Peyton Hawkins, whose .405 batting average ranks second on the team behind Moon (.452), said the team emphasized consistent hitting from the top of the batting order to the bottom, which aided in the recent surge.
“I think we just started working together as a team better and communicating more,” Hawkins said. “Everyone was just working hard getting hits together. That was very important.”
Additionally, Graham noticed a heightened level of plate discipline during that stretch.
“They were hitting good pitches,” Graham said. “That will be the biggest drawback to not being out live on the field is having that live pitching. They were seeing the ball well. They were laying off balls and hitting strikes and that's what we need to continue on with.”
The Lady Warriors host Rockmart on Wednesday during round one of the Class AAA playoffs. Rockmart enters with a 17-11 overall record.
The teams met last year in the Final Four with Rockmart winning 7-2. The Lady Warriors then lost to Pike County, eliminating them from state championship contention.
The Lady Warriors want to avenge the loss from a year ago, and Moon and Newberry said it will take a game-one victory to set that up.
“I really think it's the mentality that we set in the first game,” Newberry said. “They played us last year and they beat us unfortunately, and they're coming out expecting to win as we are. I feel like if we set that tone in the first game, we have a better chance in the second game and we can win the whole thing.”
No matter what the playoffs hold for his team, Graham said he anticipates tough matchups for his squad.
“At this point in time, everybody's trying to make it to Columbus and fight for that state championship,” he said. “It's a new season for everybody. Everybody's record right now is 0-0 and you've just got to win two at a time and move on to the next series.”