Ask anyone that follows the sport of softball and that has lived in this part of the state for the last 40 or 50 years and they will all tell the same story of how northwest Georgia used to dominate slowpitch softball on the high school scene.
From the early 1980s to the mid-1990s, several schools in our little corner of the state racked up numerous state championships. But when the game and the GHSA begin to transition to fastpitch, it took a little while for the powerhouse teams in northwest Georgia to adjust.
However, they're clicking on all cylinders now.
Monday, October 28, 2019 will be a day that fastpitch softball fans around here will be talking about for as long as there are young ladies playing softball in this area.
It was the day when three high school teams, all located within 10 to 15 miles of each other, captured GHSA state championships in three different classifications.
After rain had suspended play on Championship Saturday in Columbus, the remainder of the games were moved to the home fields of the teams that had gone through the Elite Eight winners' brackets unbeaten.
Gordon Lee, the odds-on favorite coming in to the Class A Public School state tournament, wasted little time in finishing off a 9-1 victory over region rival Trion, who also ought to be commended for an incredible run through the elimination bracket in Columbus to make the finals after losing to Gordon Lee in their first game.
The Lady Trojans have now won five consecutive state titles, nine in the past 10 seasons, and 10 all-time fastpitch state titles, tying them with Buford for the most in GHSA history.
Gordon Lee won its first state title in 2004, finished third the following season, and has played in the final game of the state tournament every year since. It's an incredible 14-year streak and a testament to the consistency of excellence their program continues to show.
While that was going on in Chickamauga, a few miles away in the Boynton community of Ringgold, defending Class 4A state champion Heritage found itself in a 3-3 tie with a very good Marist team as the Generals batted in the top of the seventh inning, needing a victory to avoid a winner-take-all game for the state championship.
The prospects for back-to-back state championships increased greatly when Heritage put up three additional runs in the inning to take a 6-3 lead. However, the big home crowd on hand began to get a little uneasy when the Generals made two uncharacteristic errors to start the bottom of the seventh, putting two runners in scoring position and bringing the tying run to the plate with no outs.
What happened next will likely go down as the greatest sports moment in Heritage High School history.
On a play that has now been shared nationally by NBC Sports and CBS Sports on its social media pages and was viewed over 400,000 times in the first 24 hours it went viral, Heritage completed an unfathomable 9-2-6-2 triple play to kill the rally and score their second straight state title.
And while all of that was going on at home, some three hours away in Franklin County, the Ringgold Lady Tigers were on the verge of one of the most incredible Elite Eight runs in GHSA history.
After dropping its first game of the tournament in Columbus, Ringgold won six consecutive elimination games, several of them coming in dramatic fashion.
After cruising to an easy 10-1 win over Lumpkin County, the Lady Tigers erased a two-run deficit after five-and-a-half innings to beat East Hall, 3-2, on a walk-off hit. But Saturday saw Ringgold fall behind 7-1 to region rival and state power Calhoun after just two-and-a-half innings and the prospects of another comeback were starting to look bleak.
But the Lady Tigers saw all things a little differently. They came all the way back and used a three-run bottom of the seventh to score an 8-7 victory and use the momentum to pick up a 6-3 win over Lovett to put them in the state finals.
Once again, Ringgold fell behind, this time 5-2. But they would erupt for five runs in the top of the fifth inning to tie the Lady Lions and, once the game resumed in Carnesville some 48 hours later, the Blue-and-White picked up where it left off, scoring a 7-5 win and forcing a second championship game for the Class 3A title.
Ringgold would only manage two runs in the final game, but those two runs turned out to be just enough. Two solo homers, one each in the top of the fourth and in the top of the eighth, provided just enough offense for the Lady Tigers' pitching and defense to secure a 2-1 win and the program's first fastpitch state title since 2005.
So what's the secret? Why does this area continue to churn out championship teams and title contenders across the board on a yearly basis?
It would be one thing if just one team was enjoying success at the state level, but in Walker and Catoosa counties, we have six schools that have made and continue to make their mark on the GHSA state softball scene.
Apart from our three 2019 state champions, LaFayette made the Class 4A Elite Eight for a second straight season and showed that they are a program on the rise, LFO has been in Columbus numerous times in the past 25 years and look to be on the verge of becoming a serious contender once again, while Ridgeland made a Class 4A run in Columbus just a few short years ago and also have a young, up-and-coming squad that will likely be a threat to make it back to the Elite Eight over the next few seasons.
Obviously we have the coaching. That speaks for itself. The facilities our teams enjoy are some of the finest in the state and being upgraded all the time, while our local teams also enjoy tremendous support from parents, students and the community at large.
Nearly all of the players on our teams now play travel ball in the summer, and even some in the fall, and many of those players play in some of the highest levels of travel ball that the country has to offer. So it's no secret that when it's time for school ball to come around each fall, our local players are more than prepared to take on any challenges thrown in front of them.
But most of all, it comes down to one thing - sheer love of the game.
The young ladies in our two counties that play softball may play other sports and they may excel at other sports, but the majority of them grew up playing softball. It's in their blood, it's in their DNA and it's a part of who they are. It's why players who have long since graduated come back to watch the current teams play and how some of those alums give back to the current generation and to the next generation by coaching. The cycle continues and so does the success.
I could go on at this point with a few more carefully-crafted words, but instead I'm going to give the floor to one of our own.
Gordon Lee senior catcher Kirbie Bradley went on Facebook just hours after the Lady Trojans won the title and penned one of the most eloquent and heartfelt messages about her love of the game that I've ever read.
Bradley has plans to go on to college and become a nurse and in her social media soliloquy, she thanked her parents, her family, her coaches, her friends, her school and God, but she also took the time to thank two other people - one she may not know yet and one she's known all her life.
(The following excerpt is printed with Bradley's permission.)
"To the next girl who wears No. 16,
"I hope you wear it well (like I know you will). I hope you know how much this jersey means to me and how much I've loved it. I hope you love it as much as I did and you make amazing memories in this jersey. I hope you never take this time on the field for granted and that you always remember to play for the name of the front of the jersey and not the back. Always give it all you have and leave everything on the field because one day you'll take your jersey off and never wear it again.
"To the little girl who fell in love with the game before it became about winning a state championship, stats or scholarships. Thank you for picking up a bat and a glove 11 or so years ago and for never looking back. It was the best decision we ever made. Thank you for reminding why I played this game in the first place."
Thank you Kirbs. I couldn't have said it any better myself.