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Bulloch Academy softball into Final Four
BA Softball
Bulloch Academy's Baylee Howard (right) screams with excitement and celebrates with her teammates after winning the Lady Gators' state quarterfinal series over Valwood, Tuesday, in Valdosta. With the win, Bulloch Academy advances to the GISA Class AAA state semifinals for the first time in five years. - photo by JOSH AUBREY

Unlike the GHSA, in the GISA state softball tournament a best-of-three series is played on the same day. When the temperatures are over 90 degrees that can make for survival of the fittest. 

Tuesday in Valdosta the Bulloch Academy Gators survived and advanced to the the state  Class-AAA final four as they took two of three from Valwood in the GISA quarterfinals


The Gators won the opener 2-0 behind another impressive pitching performance from Baylee Howard. Valwood came back to take game two in extra innings 7-5, and the Gators rebounded to take the third and decisive game 6-4 on the strength of a 2-run home run from Leah Williford.

“There were a lot of emotions out there after that last game,” said Bulloch Academy coach Kyle Chambers. “I’ve watched these girls grow up as I’ve had a lot of them for six years, so it was hard to hold back the tears myself. I’m so proud of them and I knew from the start this was a special team.”

Game one ended up being a pitchers duel between Howard, and the Valiants Darcy Brown. Both pitchers kept the opponents bats in check until the Gators finally scratched out a run in the top of the fourth. With two on Hartlee Faircloth ripped a double to the fence in left plating Abby Newton for a 1-0 Gator lead.

Bulloch Academy struck for another run in the top of the sixth. Regan Ellis led off with a double, she moved to third on a Williford double. Faircloth walked to load the bases, and Howard helped her own cause with an RBI single to make it 2-0.

Howard did the rest on the mound, as she finished the game with six strikeouts and allowed only two hits in notching the win.

“We’ve had this happen a lot lately,” Chambers said. “We’ve rode the arm of Baylee Howard for a win, and then our bats heated up when we needed them too. Baylee pitched great all day, but she really put the team on her back in game one.”

The Gators dug themselves an early hole in game two. With one on in the first the Valiants got back to back doubles by Graceigh Booth and Emily Taylor, and an RBI single from Mary Clare Martin to take a 3-0 lead.

Bulloch Academy cut the lead to one scoring two runs in the bottom of the first. Ellis plated Kacie Ricketts with a bunt, and Williford followed with an RBI single to make it 3-2.

Both teams added a run to make it 4-3 going into the seventh. The Gators tied it at 4-4 in the bottom of the seventh on a Williford sacrifice fly to right, which brought home Newton for the tying run.

In the eighth the Valiants took the lead on a 2-run homer by Martin. Back to back double by Natalie Rojas and Brown made it 7-4. The Gators added a run the the bottom of the eighth as Sloan Aubrey scored on a J.B. March sacrifice fly, but that’s the way game two ended 7-5.

“I think when we came back and tied it up in game two, I thought we would put them away,” Chambers said. “Credit to Valwood for coming back the way they did in the eighth.”

Game three looked as though the Gators may run away with it early, as they scored four runs in the top of the first. Ellis started the scoring with an RBI single, Williford followed with a 2-run double. The Gators plated their next run on an error for a 4-0 lead.

Valwood added a run in the bottom of the first, but the Gators tacked on two more in the top of the fourth. Williford had come close to putting one out in game two, this time she got all of it, and sent it over the left field fence for a 2-run home run and a 6-1 Gator lead.

Valwood came back to score three more runs off game three starter J.B. Marsh to cut the lead to 6-4, but Howard came back in relief and sat the Valiants down to record the save and preserve the Gator victory.

“I can’t say enough about J.B. Marsh coming in game three and starting after not pitching for a while,” Chambers said. “She gave Baylee some time to rest and kept us in the game, and Baylee did the rest. Leah’s home run was definitely the deciding factor offensively. She’s come through for us like that all season.”

Next up for the Gators is a trip to the state semifinals for the first time in five years. They will travel to Milledgeville to take on John Milledge in a best of three series Saturday afternoon.