November 20, 2017

Heard County Dream Team 2014: Lady Braves Capture Elusive State Trophy

(Columbus, GA) — It was the best of times, and it was the best of times for the Heard County Brave Nation and the 2014 Lady Braves softball team Saturday afternoon as they celebrated together on Field No. 3 at the South Commons Softball Complex, the same site where the best fast-pitch softball players in the world competed for the very first time on the world’s biggest stage during the 1996 Summer Olympics.

It was a fitting conclusion for this group of athletes to find redemption on the same field where many of them had suffered heart-crushing Saturday morning defeats over the past two seasons, each time to the eventual state champions.

Certainly, while finishing third in the state for the last two seasons was very rewarding (especially for a team that had never reached such heights before), this team needed more — and expected more — this 2014 Lady Braves softball team wanted it all.

Going in to Saturday’s Class AA State Championship, the Lady Braves had been as dominant over the past few weeks as any Class AA team in recent memory on a state playoff stage.

The Lady Braves slammed the door on the seasons of five other squads from all across the state shutting them down completely both offensively and defensively in seven straight wins while outscoring their opposition by a more than convincing total of 51-0.

Junior Jordan Watson showed during the entire month of October why Michigan State coaches are so eagerly awaiting her arrival to the Spartan Campus in 2016.

Watson was almost flawless during the postseason leading up to Saturday’s final versus the Gordon Lee Trojans, not only a state powerhouse, but one of the most decorated squads in the history of Georgia fast-pitch softball.

“It felt really good knowing that everything we have been doing finally paid off and to know we can finally get those rings that we have been wishing for since we were little girls,” Jordan Watson stated after Saturday’s final.

“I think we were a lot more focused this year than in year’s past because we learned that we had to be and we took practices more serious and became closer like a family. We knew we just had to play for God and that whatever he wanted was what was going to happen,” added the ace junior pitcher.

The Gordon Lee Trojans entered the championship having dominated Class A for the last decade while winning five state championships and finishing no lower than third for 11 consecutive seasons. No less than four of those titles came during the last four years with the Trojans looking for an unfathomable five-peat on Saturday.

The Lady Braves hoist senior shortstop Cali Harrod and the elusive GHSA Class AA State Championship Trophy after Saturday's 6-2 win over 4-time defending state champion Gordon Lee.

The Lady Braves hoist senior shortstop Cali Harrod and the elusive GHSA Class AA State Championship Trophy after Saturday’s 6-2 win over 4-time defending state champion Gordon Lee.

The Trojans were led this season by the very imposing 2013 Class A Pitcher of the Year Emily Armour, who entered Saturday’s final with a 24-4 record and well over 250 strikeouts while backed by a team with a 34-7 overall record and a most impressive marquee early season win over the University of Buford Wolves, who claimed their eighth straight state championship on Saturday (Class AAAA).

Fueled by their great accomplishments in the recent past, the Trojans were rewarded with the No. 1 ranking in most state polls for majority of the 2014 season.

Catcher Anna Shelnutt believes the win over such a top team makes the championship even sweeter.

“It is just breathtaking honestly — we come from such a small county with such a small amount of people to choose from for our softball team — and just coming out here and beating such a well-known team like Gordon Lee that has won state so many times in Class A in the last game — it is just amazing,” said the future FSU catcher.

“We have had a lot of ups and downs this season but Jordan Watson just showed so much heart on the pitcher’s mound today and Cali Harrod over at short making plays and hitting that homer to tie us up — I am just proud of all these girls — proud to call them my friends and my sisters.”

While Saturday’s actual championship game win over the Trojans was of course huge, the key to winning this championship was the quality play by the Lady Braves exhibited during the course of all three days in Columbus.

While the Trojans put themselves behind the eight ball with an early extra-inning loss to Jeff Davis, the Braves managed to “handle their own business” as has often been referred to by head coach Matt Hornsby during the last few years, knocking off a scrappy Swainsboro Tiger team (4-0) in game one and another tough opponent from Region 3-AA, the Bacon County Raiders (8-0) in round two. Round two’s game with the Raiders started well after dark Thursday evening.

The day one wins were crucial to the success of the Lady Braves as it allowed an advantage that Thursday’s losers would not benefit from in the double elimination tournament — the opportunity to get plenty of rest before the third game at 5:00 p.m. Friday in the stadium.

In Friday’s game, the Lady Braves faced off with a very athletic Vidalia Indian squad that entered the game on a roll of their own in the state playoffs having won six of seven games including an impressive sweep over Harlem in round two where they tallied 20 runs scored.

The Indians had defeated Social Circle (2-0) and Jeff Davis (6-3) en route to Friday’s match-up with the Braves, considered by many to be the most important game of the tournament as it assures the winner of another good night’s sleep while the loser must be out of bed early Saturday morning looking for three straight wins with no rest in between.

Many local fans who had only been able to follow Thursday’s games via text and the internet because of the Braves varsity football game that night, arrived in jubilation for Friday night’s marquee winner’s bracket Halloween final.

Many parents and supporters even showed up in Halloween costumes in the stadium Friday along with a host of faculty, alumni, administrators, and other community leaders as clearly the Heard County crowds were continuing to swell with each Lady Brave victory.

The entire Heard County community has been hungry for that first GHSA Team State Championship in school history for quite a while, and that showed by the sizable crowd assembled Friday that nearly doubled that of the Vidalia faithful who traveled about three hours for the late afternoon first pitch.

While of course there were obvious crucial plays during Saturday’s final, perhaps the signature moment of the tournament came in the bottom of the third inning in the stadium Friday night when center fielder Johanna Beyer and junior left fielder Madison Whitehead hit back-to-back solo homers  in an inning where the Lady Braves extended the lead over the Indians to 4-0.

From there Coach Hornsby left the game in the very capable hands of Watson and she held the Indians scoreless the rest of the way.

The wind was taken quickly from the sails of the Indian Nation as they watched the bottom two players in the Brave lineup blast bombs over the left field fence.

Those two homers were symbolic of the difference between this Lady Braves team and those in the recent memory. While other squads were equally strong through the upper part of the order this 2014 Lady Braves lineup featured dangerous hitters throughout especially during this postseason.

In seemingly every game of the playoffs, a new Lady Brave hitter emerged as clutch with maybe the most important being first baseman Hannah Stephens, one of the most improved hitters from the beginning to the end of the season. Perhaps more than any other, the high quality pitching seen by the Braves throughout the season seemed to benefit her most.

The other dramatic difference in this 2014 Lady Braves roster was the stellar defense by fielders throughout the second half of the season. Not only were fielding errors rare, the benefit seemed enormous to the confidence of Watson as she could feel comfortable going right after hitters without the pressure of overly relying on the strikeout.

Seemingly every player at every position for the Lady Braves had at least one shining moment defensively in Columbus.

In Friday night’s game perhaps the one defensive play that sparked the loudest cheers from the fans of both teams was a diving attempt in foul territory by Madison Whitehead where she didn’t actually even come up with the ball. Whitehead’s effort where she laid out facing head first toward the fence was indicative of the kind of defensive effort the Lady Braves displayed all tournament long.

Another huge defensive play in Saturday’s final was actually invented by the division one trio of Anna Shelnutt, Jordan Watson, and Cali Harrod.

Shelnutt, already committed to play college softball for FSU along with Harrod, picked off a Trojan runner at second base after making it appear that Shelnutt was just normally tossing the ball normally back to Watson. Instead the throw ended up going to Harrod for the easy out turned on the surprised Trojan runner ending a major scoring threat.

“You know all the credit for that play goes to those three girls,” said Hornsby. “Cali, Jordan, and Anna came up with that on their own and we did work on it in practice this week. I think it is genius and  we are probably going to keep using that play for years to come.”

One of if not the sweetest parts of the title win was that it came during Harrod’s tenure at shortstop. Harrod, the lone senior on the squad and perhaps the most successful athlete in the history of Heard County, probably deserved this title more than any other Brave before.

Harrod has played travel softball since she was seven-years-old and her father Roger estimates she has played in well over one thousand games in her 10 plus years of competition.

The win was also sweet for the elder Harrod who himself came so close to a state championship as part of the 1985 Braves baseball team coached by Norris Vaughn.

Roger Harrod’s two-run double at home in the spring of 1985 defeated the Bowdon Red Devils and sent the Braves to their first state title series that they eventually lost to Calhoun County with the series not being decided until the final pitch.

Coach Hornsby will certainly miss his senior shortstop as she moves on to college next season. “I wish the best for Cali moving forward to Florida State she is going to be a heck of a player and I expect her to go in there and battle for a spot right away,” said Hornsby. “She’s got the power, the speed, and the smarts to make adjustments and you just don’t find that whole combination very often. We are going to miss her and I am going to miss her.”

Cali is very excited about her future at FSU, but her elation remains bittersweet since she will have to leave her teammates behind.

“Each year we proved that we needed to be down here and we deserved to be down here but coming back down here and winning it and showing that we are the best team in AA is just an awesome feeling. We worked so hard for it and I couldn’t be more proud,” said the senior shortstop.

“I am going to miss these girls more than anything. I would not have wanted to go out any other way it’s been a great four years for me in this rising Heard County program.”

Of all the reasons for the Lady Braves success this year one that really stands out is the high quality schedule the girls played this season, undoubtedly the hardest schedule and Class AA team has ever played in the state of Georgia.

Although the Lady Braves lost nine regular season games, each of those losses came to a highly rated team with several being some of the top Class AAAAAA teams in Georgia.

Of the teams that arrived in Columbus this year in all classes, the Braves had already battled many of them in the regular season. Maybe most indicative of the talent of the Lady Braves is how close they played the Class AAAAAA schools in losses — losing five games to the biggest schools in the state by only one run including a September 13 one-run loss to Hillgrove, the 2014 state runner-ups in Class AAAAAA.

“You know you put the tough schedule together that we did to make sure that our travel girls don’t fall off after the tough travel ball schedules that they had been playing,” stated Hornsby Saturday.

“Even the ones that aren’t able to play travel ball had to up their games or they would n0t survive with that schedule. You know a lot of them batted .250 or .300 during that tough stretch of the schedule and then during the playoffs they are batting .400 plus — and it is a straight result from having to hit tougher pitching or finding a way to adjust to that type of  pitching all season long.”

The school as well as the Heard County community really rallied around the team for the state run with several local businesses donating to help pay for travel expenses and the girls got a huge sendoff Thursday morning as they pulled out of HHS. They arrived home from Columbus with a special police escort provided by Heard and Franklin law enforcement as several very dedicated fans welcomed them back home at the school, appropriately right by the softball field.

No matter how many state titles Heard High School claims in the future,  the 2014 Lady Braves softball team will always be remembered as not only the team that broke the curse, but the team that broke the curse in unbelievably convincing fashion.

Congratulations to Coach Hornsby, Coach Bianco, Coach Duffey, Coach Hadley, Cali Harrod, Jordan Watson, Anna Shelnutt, Hannah Stephens, Hattie Yarbrough, Alyssa Cosper, Hannah Sanders, Madison Whitehead, Johanna Beyer, Alexis Raines, Ally Harris, Aspen Barker, Katie Minix, and Sarah Schofield for etching their names into Heard County school and sports history forever.

 

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