Columbus, Ga. --What a difference one year makes.
Last year at this time, the Calhoun Lady Jackets were out of the state tournament, having their season come to an abrupt end by losing two straight in Columbus.
Fast forward 12 months and matters have faired quite differently in the Columbus-hosted tournament for the girls who dawn the Black & Gold.
The Lady Jackets have booked their ticket to the 2019 GHSA 3A State Softball Tournament Final Four as they defeated the Jefferson Lady Dragons 10-7 and the Southeast Bulloch Lady Jackets 3-0 on Friday. This is Calhoun's sixth final four appearance in the previous seven years.
"It's wonderful," Lady Jackets head coach Diane Smith said on Calhoun's Final Four admission. "We're going to take it a game at a time, or really an inning at a time. The girls are fired up."
With backs against the wall Friday, the Lady Jackets put it all on the line and battled their way to Saturday softball. Here's how it went down:
Calhoun 10, Jefferson 7
Calhoun's first of two games on Thursday came against the Jefferson Lady Dragons.
Facing elimination, there was no margin for error. But with a new day came a new-look Calhoun team. And a Calhoun team that responded to extreme pressure.
With the game tied 6-6 in the bottom of the sixth inning, Jefferson had a runner on third with two down. The Lady Dragons were able to get the deadlock-breaking run across home plate on a bloop RBI single to center field.
It would be 7-6 Jefferson heading to the top of the seventh inning. Calhoun batted as the away team, as three outs separated the Lady Jackets from a departure back to north Georgia.
With a runner on first and two outs, Calhoun's season rested in Hannah Mashburn's hands. However, she would reach base on an error by Jefferson's shortstop, then sophomore Paris Kirby would walk to load the bases.
Those events set the stage for sophomore Espey Reyes.
"I was actually very nervous," Reyes said. "Last year, I was the third out for our second game when we had lost so I just didn't want to do it again."
This time around, Reyes would not be out No. 3. Instead, she provided the eventual game-winning knock.
On the first pitch of the at-bat, Reyes mailed a ball into a gap in left-center field, scoring Mattie Jane Mashburn (courtesy running for Lyndi Rae Davis) and Hannah Mashburn. Pure elation on one side and disbelief on the other. Calhoun 8, Jefferson 7.
"I was excited," Reyes said on her hit. "I was like 'Oh my God, I just popped up again. Wow,' but then when it hit the ground, I was just excited."
Sophomore Kayleigh Warren followed Reyes' cue with a 2RBI single of her own and Kirby and Reyes crossed home plate for a 10-7 lead, completely swinging the momentum pendulum in Calhoun's favor. The field-goal lead would hold up as the final score.
"I feel a whole lot better than I did yesterday," Smith said following the win over Jefferson. "That's why you never give up. We can do this. Everybody had the jitters last night, nervous, scared, but they came to play ball today and I'm proud of all of them."
The Lady Jackets scored their first run of the state tournament in big fashion as senior Erin Barnes obliterated a ball to left-center field for a 1-0 in the top of the first inning.
Jefferson tied the game 1-1 with an RBI single in the bottom of the second inning.
Calhoun's bats emerged once again, and for a second time, Barnes provided the big boom. Following back-to-back sophomore Emma Rogers and senior Carlie Henderson, Barnes sent a softball over the left field wall for a three-run slam.
Calhoun led 4-1, then stretched it to 5-1 three batters later when junior Hannah Mashburn mashed a ball beyond the Jefferson left fielder's reach.
However, the Lady Dragons mounted a quick response, putting a three spot on the board in the third. Calhoun's lead was suddenly trimmed to 5-4 via two walks, two singles and a 2RBI ground-rule double.
The Lady Jackets added an insurance run in the top of the fourth inning, but Jefferson countered with two in the bottom of the fifth.
Calhoun 3, Southeast Bulloch 0
Calhoun wasted no time in getting the offense going as senior Carlie Henderson tripled to left field, placing an opposite-field drive just fair inside the third base bag. Two batters later, Davis brought her home, reaching first base on an error by SE Bulloch's shortstop for a 1-0 lead.
That would be all the offense the Lady Jackets would need as junior Maggie McBrayer limited Southeast Bulloch to just four hits throughout seven innings of work.
"Maggie has done a great job," Smith said. "She's got it all together. She told me this morning she wanted to pitch both games. She's good to go."
Calhoun's offense resurfaced in the top of the fourth inning when junior Hannah Mashburn singled. After a sacrifice bunt and a walk, Kayleigh Warren hit a sac bunt down the third base line. SE Bulloch's third baseman attempted to throw Warren out at first base, but the ball went wide of the bag, allowing two runs (Mashburn and Espey Reyes) to score as Calhoun took a 3-0 advantage.
Southeast Bulloch's offense looked to be gaining some traction in the bottom of the fifth inning, as the team placed runners on first and second with zero outs. However, a stellar double play by Rogers (line-out catch then base tag at second) and, moments later, a Davis laser to Banks to tag out SE Bulloch's remaining baserunner sent the game to the sixth with no damage on the scoreboard.
"They knew it was do or die," Smith said. "They knew they had to play ball."
Southeast Bulloch's last opportunity added a late-game flurry as the team opened the bottom of the seventh with back-to-back singles.
"I was thinking 'Lord, please let us catch it,'" Smith said. "I was just wanting to get out of that situation. They had two on and two outs and ... anything would change the outcome of the game. They held it all together and did a great job defensively and Maggie (McBrayer) did awesome as well."
However, a groundout, flyout and lineout sealed Southeast Bulloch's fate, sending Calhoun into the Final Four and setting up a rematch with Ringgold on Saturday morning.
"We're going to get revenge on Ringgold in the morning," Smith said. "Nothing would give us more pleasure then to put them out of this thing."
As has been indicated, the Lady Jackets will face Ringgold on Saturday at 10 a.m.
Should Calhoun emerge victorious, they would face the Lovett Lady Lions in a rematch of the first state tournament game at noon (Lovett lost to Franklin County Thurs. night). If Calhoun defeats Lovett, the Lady Jackets would battle the Franklin County Lady Lions for the 2019 3A Softball State Championship starting at 2 p.m., but would have to beat Franklin County twice since Calhoun has been playing from the loser's bracket.
"We're gonna have a long road tomorrow," Smith said. "We've got the enthusiasm and the mental toughness going right now so I feel good about our chances tomorrow."