September 16, 2021

HISTORY MAKERS: Lady Braves capture 2020 Class AA State Softball Championship

The 2020 Class AA State Champion Lady Braves (Front L-R): Gracie Bailey, Zekylah “Z” Boyd, Sydney Goddard, Chasity Kates, Taylor Bailey, Hannah Wright, LilyRae Fulford (Back L-R): Beth Taylor, Maddie Carroll, Chloe Scarbrough, Aubree Ussery, Janiyah Strong, Courtney Cannon, Mackenzie White, Alyssa Hall, Emma Helton, Abigail Lathrop, Brianna Hill

(Columbus, GA) — The Lady Braves softball team knew the road to Columbus would be long (both literally and figuratively) following a close 3-2 Region 5-AA Championship loss to Bremen on October 15, but they proved Saturday that they were more than up to the challenge.

The Lady Braves closed out a perfect 9-0 run through the postseason with a 14-7 win over The Lovett School in the GHSA Class AA Championship game on Field 8 at Columbus.

It was a postseason where the Lady Braves spent upwards of 15 hours on the bus while traveling about 1000 miles around the state.

The pressure in the Class AA Championship Saturday afternoon was squarely on the Lovett squad that defeated Vidalia 2-0 just prior to the title matchup, but needed two wins to claim the big trophy.

The Lady Brave Nation was out in full force outnumbering the private school fans about 5-1 for the center stage clash on Halloween.

The Lady Braves were the visitors in the game and got off to a big start in the top of the first when Abigail Lathrop launched her third homer of the postseason to put the Lady Braves on top 3-0.

Left fielder Courtney Cannon then drove home Beth Taylor to increase the lead to 4-0 before the Lions would even come to the plate.

The Championship Celebration (Photo: Tammy Bailey)

The Lions would not go quietly as they responded with three runs of their own in the bottom half of the first to make it a one run game at 4-3.

The speed of Chasity Kates would lead to another run for the Lady Braves in the top of the second.

The slap-hitting sophomore centerfielder laced a base hit to right and then swiped two bases before scoring on a grounder to give the Lady Braves a 5-3 lead in the second inning.

LilyRae Fulford would settle down and retire the Lions in order in the second and following a double by Mackenzie White, Lathrop drove home pinch runner Aubree Ussery to extend the lead to 6-3 in the top of the third.

Ussery was unable to hit or play in the field after breaking her finger in the epic Friday night win over Vidalia, but was ready to help her team as a runner and promptly stole third base before scoring on Lathrop’s hit.

The Lions would push two more across to once again close the gap to just a run at 6-5 , but the Lady Braves offense would continue to put the pressure on when a Janiyah Strong double drove home Zekylah Boyd to increase the lead to 7-5 in the top of the fourth.

A great hustling effort by senior Beth Taylor on a misplayed pop-up landed her on second base. Hall then drove home pinch runner Gracie Bailey with a base hit to make the score 8-6 Lady Braves.

The Lions continued to fight hard and for the third time got within a run of the Lady Braves at 8-7 before the Lady Braves would break it open for good in route to the second State Softball Championship in school history.

The key blow came on a 2-run homer to right by senior Alyssa Hall in the top of the sixth inning. The homer made it 11-7 and the Lady Braves never looked back going on to add three more runs in the top of the seventh for the final margin of 14-7.

Gracie Bailey, Sydney Goddard, and Mackenzie White (Photo: Tammy Bailey)

Lathrop had a huge game offensively for the Lady Braves going 3-for-5 with a single, double, homer, and four RBIs.

The junior first baseman was one of the offensive stars in the postseason including a surprising power surge.

Her three postseason homers came after she hit none in the regular season and just one career long ball she hit as a sophomore in 2019.

Lathrop says that while she doesn’t consider herself a power hitter, it was amazing to trot around the bases so many times in the playoffs.

“I don’t know sometimes it comes and sometimes it goes I am normally a base hitter and they’ve just been finding a way out lately and I love it,” said Lathrop.

Alyssa Hall credited a popular energy drink for the memorable blast in her last high school at bat following a tough night at the plate versus Vidalia Friday night.

“It felt really good to hit that home run — I just wanted to cry. And it’s because Friday night I didn’t hit too well and it’s because normally I drink a Red Bull before the game and I didn’t but today I did and that really topped it all off,” Hall said after the 14-7 win.

In addition to Hall and Lathrop, Mackenzie White, Janiyah Strong, and Courtney Cannon each had big games with three hits apiece.

Strong drove home three runs and had two key doubles. Kates and Boyd each stole two bases and the Lady Braves swiped an impressive nine bases in the game. Emma Helton had two important sacrifices from the top of the lineup.

LilyRae Fulford pitched all seven innings in the title game giving up just three earned runs and the freshman No. 1 pitched all 20 innings for the Lady Braves in Columbus.

For the season, Mackenzie White not only established new Heard County single season records in homers with 15 and RBIs with 52, but she also led them team in hitting with a .468 batting average.

The Lady Braves had six different players finish the season above the .400 mark. The rest of the hitting leaders were Aubree Ussery (.429 average), Janiyah Strong (.415 average), Sydney Goddard, (.412 average), Courtney Cannon (.409 average), and Emma Helton (.402 average).

LilyRae Fulford (Photo: Tammy Bailey)

Other top RBI leaders behind White were Strong (43), Hall (29), Taylor (28), Lathrop (25) and Boyd with 23 batted in.

Boyd led the squad in steals with 20 and other stolen base leaders included Helton with 19, Kates with 17, Strong and Cannon with 10 each, and Taylor Bailey with eight.

Strong led the team in doubles with 14 while Hall had seven. White led the way in total hits with 52 followed by Strong with 51, Cannon and Helton with 45, and Beth Taylor with 43.

Runs scored leaders were Strong with 43, Helton with 41, Lathrop with 30, Boyd with 28, and Taylor Bailey with 25.

Fulford led the way in season pitching stats with a record of 23-4 in her 30 games pitched. She struck out just 38 but walked a remarkably low 10 batters in her 155.1 innings of work with a season earned run average of just 2.16.

Freshman Chloe Scarbrough had five wins and struck out 26 with an ERA of 2.92.

The Lady Braves were obviously elated to finish their season on a winning note at the biggest stage in Georgia High School softball. A common theme echoed by all of the girls was just one word — family.

“It just feels amazing. The key for us this season was being close, being a family, and always wanting to back each other up no matter what,” said one of the games heroes, Abigail Lathrop.

“This season we had a really close team and everybody basically became family so it was more than just being a team,” Alyssa Hall stated. “We got to come out here and we got along so well and had so much fun doing it. It was just so much more than it being a sport — it was about all of us being best friends and all of the work we put in this season really came out to a good end.”

Janiyah Strong, Zekylah Boyd, and Abigail Lathrop (Photo: Marian Ross)

Head coach Matt Hornsby said it took a lot of hard work, long hours, and perseverance by his team to bring home the program’s second state title in six years.

“This group for two years has had that high level of talent that could come down here and compete for it but it just hasn’t worked out for them.”

“Last year, the day after we lost out, a couple of them came to me and said: Coach, we really just thought we had made the adjustments we needed to and it just sucks we finished fifth all over gain — we did all that work and it was really for nothing,” said Hornsby. “I think that was really an eye opener for that group of girls that it was not just one step, that it is about taking several steps forward.”

“Obviously, with losing most of our pitching staff from last year it was going to be challenge just finding out our identity. We sat our infielders down before this season and told them we don’t have anybody that is going to strike out 9 or 10 a game this year. You are probably going to make more errors this year than you ever have and they did — but they also made a lot more plays than they ever have.”

“All of these girls from top to bottom knew their roles and knew what they were there for and did what they had to do. It was just fantastic to watch,” added Hornsby.

The 11th year head man for the Lady Braves was most surprised by his young pitchers this season.

“We were really proud to see the forward steps this season by all our pitchers from LilyRae and Chloe to Brianna and Maddie. I would have never thought that with a freshman No. 1 and a freshman No. 2 we would be here where we are right now,” he said after the championship win.

(Photo: Tammy Bailey)

“I thought we would be down here competing (at Columbus) because of our offense and our defense, but what those two freshmen starters did for us is absolutely unbelievable.”

Hornsby also credited his coaching staff for the incredible softball season.

“Our assistant coaches have worked their tails off this year. They were hard on the girls and were petty about stuff but that is what you’ve got to do because those little petty things will find you in big games,” Hornsby said.

“All the way around whether it was swings, infield stuff, pitching, catching, or outfield play — we stayed on them pretty tough about getting those things fixed. I am very thankful for all the time these coaches have put in for us this year.”

The Lady Braves celebrated with fans on the field long after the game had been played and the trophies handed out. They were met by more fans at Heard High after being escorted back to HCHS from the Troup/Heard County line by Heard County law enforcement.

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