Bulloch Academy fell behind twice, but fought back both times to beat Edmund Burke Academy 6-4 in an emotional game that secured the Gators a home playoff game in head coach Kyle Chambers’ first season.
For a team that started its season 0-8, hosting a state playoff game sounded like a dream. Even at the beginning of the season, going to the playoffs was the furthest thing from the players minds.
“There was not a thought in my mind that’d we’d be able to do this,” said third baseman MiKay Sands. “But we’ve come a long way and we’re ready.”
For a moment, hosting a state playoff game was going to remain a dream as Edmund Burke jumped on the Gators 2-0 in the top of the fifth. The game saw a pitcher's duel going into that inning, with Bulloch Academy’s Baylee Howard having allowed only four base runners in four innings.
Edmund Burke singled to open up the fifth, then following a fly out singled again to put two runners on with one out. Howard wouldn’t make things easier on herself when she hit the next batter to load the bases.
The next batter smacked Edmund Burke’s third hit of the inning and score the first run — leaving the bases slam full. In the next at bat, Howard forced a sac fly for the second out but also brought in the second run. Howard would punctuate the inning with a strikeout but the damage was done and BA was down 2-0.
“Even when we went down I knew it wasn’t over,” said shortstop Abby Newton. “We just had to keep fighting.”
Madeline Cowart doubled to lead off the bottom of the fifth in response, followed by a crazy series of plays to tie things up for BA. Koree Jacobs laid a bunt to try and advance Cowart — who was running before the ball made contact with the bat. Edmund Burke’s catcher threw to first but the ball went under the first baseman’s glove — rolling behind her into the outfield and allowing Cowart to roll home.
Leadoff hitter Mattie Wynn Hendrix then stepped up and hit the first pitch she saw right back to the pitcher. The pitcher then threw over to first forcing another error, allowing Jacobs to score from first and Hendrix to roll to third — all still with no outs.
Newton followed up with a sac fly to give BA the lead in front a crowd over over 150 spectators from both sides. For comparison, a crowd of 150 at a GISA softball game is like having 26,000 at a Georgia Southern football game.
“This was the biggest crowd we’ve had since I’ve been here,” Chambers said. “The football team came down to support MiKay, but that crowd really gave us a lot of energy down the stretch.”
The BA side was silenced in the following frame when Edmund Burke doubled with one out, then a passed ball and a fielder's choice put runners on the corners with one out. A single in the next at-bat would tie the game at 3-3.
On the next plate appearance, a ball got past catcher Regan Ellis prompting the runner at third to try and take home. Alertly as the only senior on the team, Sands ran over from her spot at third and was able to tag the runner out at home when Ellis got a hold of the ball. Sands noticed the runner from first trying to take third on the play and threw over to the bag, but no one was covering, allowing the runner to pass by and score to put Edmund Burke up 4-3.
Sands then brought the team back to the mound, motioning her hands wildly in a fiery speech uncommon to her normal calm demeanor. After the meeting on the mound adjourned, Howard got the final out of the sixth and BA, once again, would have to fight back.
“Games like these give me the confidence that we can beat anyone,” Chambers said. “It’s great to know we’ll never get down on ourselves, even when we’re down.”
The next inning started as follows: an error, a single, a sac bunt and a hit by pitch. Do the math, that’s base loaded with not outs for BA. With possibly the biggest at-bat of their season, Hendrix hit a soft grounder to back to the pitcher, who mishandled the ball and allowed all the runners to be safe and bring in the tying run.
Up next was Newton, who by many accounts has been one of the best freshman in Bulloch County and BA’s best offensive player. In a big moment, her plate discipline paid off with an eight-pitch walk to bring in the go-ahead run and bring the Gators ahead 5-4. An error on a fielder’s choice in the next at-bat would bring in an insurance run — but BA would head to the final frame with a 6-4 lead.
“Coming in I knew what I had to do,” Howard said. “I had to throw strikes to get us the win.”
With the game on the line, Howard set down the Spartans in order and sealed the comeback season for BA. The crowd would roar in approval — possibly just as surprised the team that was was winless for eight games back in August was now going to host a playoff game.
Following the celebration, Sands was honored at home plate as the lone senior. The team gathered at home plate, eyes watery and smiles wide. It was an emotional night for a team stormed back from a slow start and for Sands a realization it wouldn’t be her last game played at the field she’d called home for four years.
“I knew it wouldn’t be the last one, I just knew,” Sands said. “I didn’t even think about it like that.”
Bulloch Academy (6-10, 3-3) will host their playoff game on Tuesday, time and opponent still to be determined. But before they can celebrate, they still have one more regular season road trip at Robert Toombs Thursday at 4:00 p.m.