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PREP SOFTBALL: State dance cards set, first round starts Wednesday

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Emily Loveless, Steve Luke

Rockmart, including pitcher Emily Loveless (left) and head coach Steve Luke, hosts Elbert County in the first round of the Class AA state softball playoffs Wednesday. (Jeremy Stewart/RN-T.com)

All year long, softball coaches in Region 7-AA talked about what a gauntlet their region is throughout the regular season and the region tournament.

Now the top four teams get to test that big-game experience against the rest of the state.

The Class AA state playoffs begin Wednesday, with Rockmart, Armuchee and Pepperell all coming out of Region 7-AA. And after the region tournament, all three teams believe they can make a run to the state finals in Columbus.

“If we hit, our defense shows up, and our pitchers do what they’re capable of, hopefully there won’t be anything to put our head down about,” Rockmart coach Steve Luke said. “We give everything we have and the scoreboard is in our favor, then we did what we had to do.”

The two-time Region 7-AA champion Lady Jackets host Elbert County in the first round, beginning with a doubleheader on Wednesday. Armuchee and Pepperell are on the road, with the Lady Indians traveling to Social Circle and the Lady Dragons at Banks County.

Rockmart is attempting to make it to Columbus for the second straight year, and it returns many of the key pieces from the team’s playoff run last season. Those players remember what it took to get there, and Luke said they’ve had high aspirations all season.

But at the moment, the biggest thing Luke can ask for is some games off after his team went undefeated in region play.

“We’ve had to play a lot of night games in the past two months, and I feel like we need the time off,” Luke said. “At this point, we should know how to catch a ground ball, field the ball and put it in play.”

Armuchee coach Shane Arp was disappointed that his team was unable to finish in the top two of the region, forcing the team to start the playoffs on the road. The Lady Indians finished third after a losing a pair of nail-biters against Rockmart and Dade County in the region tournament.

But with strong wins against Pepperell, Dade County and Chattooga this season, the Lady Indians have developed a mental toughness. Arp said that attitude can pay off if the team executes in the crucial moments.

“I think our coaches have said it already, but I’ll take this group and go to battle with them any day of the week,” Arp said. “Because I know that I’m going to get girls who are going to scrap until the final out.”

Pepperell finished fourth in the region, and that means a series against Region 8-AA champion Banks County. The Lady Leopards won five of their last six games and dropped only one region contest all season.

Darlington is also expected to make the playoffs in the Class A-Private classification, but the final rankings and playoff matchups have yet to be determined.