RINGGOLD - The Ridgeland softball team will be making a return to the state playoffs next week.
But they won't be the only group of Lady Panthers doing so.
For the first time in over five years, the Ridgeland volleyball is also state-bound after battling back out of the elimination bracket to finish third in the Area 7-AAAA tournament at Heritage on Saturday.
Unfortunately for Walker County, Ridgeland's trip to state will come at the expense of LaFayette, who fell to the Lady Panthers in the elimination bracket semifinals with a playoff berth on the line.
The tournament actually began for fifth-seeded Ridgeland on Thursday as they dropped a heartbreaker to Northwest Whitfield in Tunnel Hill. Ridgeland won the first set, 25-20, but lost the next two by scores of 25-18 and 26-24, dropping them to elimination bracket.
Meanwhile, the third-seeded Lady Ramblers handled Dalton at home on Thursday, 25-20 and 26-24, as they advanced to the winners' bracket semis.
Ridgeland took care of eighth-seeded Pickens, 25-16 and 25-16, but LaFayette lost a 25-13, 25-23 decision to second-seeded Southeast Whitfield, setting up the all-Walker County, win-or-go-home showdown with the state berth hanging in the balance.
The Lady Panthers drew first blood with a 25-17 win in the opening set, but the Lady Ramblers answered with a 25-17 win of their own to send the match to a third and final set.
LaFayette held a 15-12 lead in the final set, when Ridgeland simply stole the momentum for good. The Lady Panthers claimed 12 of the next 14 points to earn match point at 24-17. LaFayette would win two more points but no more as Ridgeland moved on with a 25-19 victory.
"We still did well," said a tearful LaFayette head coach Whitney Stinson, whose team ended the year with a 23-17 record. "We still finished third in the regular season, and it's hard when all comes down to a single day because anything can happen.
"I'm proud of our team and our eight seniors, who we will miss dearly. They accomplished so much this season, but I'm also proud of Ridgeland too. We respect their program and I coached a few of those girls while I was at Rossville (Middle School). I hope they keep it going."
Ridgeland drew surprising Gilmer in the next match and relegated the seventh-seeded Lady Bobcats to a No. 4 seed at state with a 25-20, 23-25, 25-17 victory.
That set up a match with eighth-ranked Southeast, a team that the Lady Panthers beat in their previous two meetings this season.
Ridgeland led 21-16 in the first set and had three set points in the match, but could not put the Lady Raiders away as Southeast rallied for a thrilling 30-28 victory.
Southeast jumped out to a 9-1 lead in the second set, looking to put away the Lady Panthers quickly, but the Black-and-White was having none of it as they chipped away at the deficit. They would come all the way back to take a 23-22 lead, but once again, Southeast battled back to score a 26-24 win.
"We had moments of inconsistency throughout the day, and I think we let up just a few times in that last match," Ridgeland head coach Kari Cooper explained. "But that was probably due to being tired, and we just didn't have that extra energy to carry us through. Still, we can leave this gym with our heads held high because we played really good volleyball today.
"I'm proud of them. We didn't just qualify for state, we won that next match afterward and nearly got into the region finals. We just need to work on our consistency and see what can do next week."
Ridgeland (23-18) is scheduled to play at Sandy Creek in the opening round of the Class AAAA playoffs on Oct. 16, according to the brackets posted on the GHSA website.
Despite an 18-32 overall record against a brutally-tough schedule, the Patriots are ranked sixth in the latest Class AAAA poll. They finished runner-up to second-ranked Columbus in Area 3-AAAA.
Sandy Creek knows a thing or two about the state tournament, having won the Class AAAA state title in 2008 and again last season. They also won the Class AAA state championship in 2011.