By CHRIS STANLEY
Bulloch County softball is the one sport that hasn’t been affected by Hurricane Matthew, and thankfully so considering the first round of the playoffs start today for the GHSA.
In years past, the weather may have not mattered because Statesboro and Portal wouldn’t be in the state tournament. Instead, 2016 has seen a resurgence in both programs.
Statesboro finished the season 14-8 and 3-3 in the regular season, while Portal finished 12-6 and 7-2. Both will have to travel for the playoffs, but just being in the playoffs after their recent track records is an accomplishment in itself.
SEB on the other hand did exactly what everyone thought they were going to do this season. The Yellow Jackets went 17-8 and swept their region 14-0 to win their first title since 2008. Behind stud pitching and timely hitters, they’ve run up to a run differential of +166 and a home playoff berth.
Everything goes down Wednesday, so here’s a snapshot at what each team is dealing with in the first round of their respective state playoffs.
Statesboro without question has the toughest matchup in the first round of any of the Bulloch County Schools. Region 2-5A is paired with region 4-5A, whose top three teams are all ranked in the top 10 in class 5A.
Being the four seed, Statesboro has the pleasure of traveling three hours northwest to McDonough to face No. 7 Union Grove. Union Grove finished their season 21-11 and 12-4 in their region, good enough to finish second in the regular season.
Union Grove earned their number one seed by beating region rival No. 4 Locust Grove two out of three games in their region tournament final. Needless to say, Union Grove just might be the best team Statesboro has seen all season.
“They hit well, their offense is high powered,” said head coach Jim Simmons. “They don’t do anything particularly bad. They can’t play perfect defense, so if you hit a lot of balls at them they can make mistakes like anyone else.”
Union Grove will be led by shortstop Skylar Mosel, who leads the team in RBI (34) and home runs (5) while hitting .460. She’s backed by Emily Coltharp (43 hits, .518 average) and Elyse Ambrose (13 doubles, .462 average) to make for a fearsome top of the order. As a team, Union Grove hits .384 with an OPS of .980.
On the mound, Union Grove is easily as impressive. They’ll throw Jessica Mead and Kelsey Busch, who both have ERA’s under 3.00 but have a combined WHIP of 1.29 — meaning they’re susceptible to giving up more walks than the average pitcher.
“Their pitchers can get in the50-60 MPH range will pitch away until you can prove you can hit away,” Simmons said. “We’ve struggled with hitting that this year, but we’ve been working on it”.
Statesboro has a big three on offense too. Morgan Thompson, McKenzi Wilkerson and Brinson Anne Rogers all have an OPS over 1.000 while Jenna Coble has a solid .805. They present a fearsome one through four hole and will have to be on their game when facing this Union Grove staff.
The key will come with Statesboro’s pitching, which has been up-and-down this season. Brison Anne Rogers has been the ace of the staff, posting a 3.45 ERA with a 112 strikeouts to just 28 walks -- however the depth falls off sharply after her.
Only 33 of her 59 runs were earned, meaning Statesboro’s defense will have to limit their errors (47 in 26 games) to give themselves a chance to stay in this double header. Game 1 will start at 3:30 with game two to start at 5:30. If necessary, the rubber match will be tomorrow at 3:30 p.m.
While Statesboro has arguably the toughest road in the playoff, Southeast Bulloch will by far have the easiest in the first round. As a one-seed not only will they host, but they’ll get to face the four seed from one of the weaker regions in Class AAA.
Monroe High School is that representative, and they aren’t a strong one at that. Monroe is 5-12 on their season and just 1-9 in region play. Their run differential is -89 and are currently riding a seven-game losing streak. However playing low quality teams is nothing new for Southeast Bulloch this season.
“It’s not hard for us to get pumped up at this point in the season,” said centerfielder Emma Britt. “We’re so family based, we can always get each other pumped up. We’re confident and excited to host a playoff game.”
SEB’s run differential is sky-high at +166, but that drops to -34 when you look strictly at non-region play. While that may not matter in this first round, it is definitely something to pay attention to in the later rounds of competition.
SEB will rely on pitchers Madison Fields and McKenzie Glisson to set the tone in these games, and both have been dominant in their outings this year. Add in the senior leadership of players in key positions like Britt and shortstop Blair Chapman and SEB will be competitive with whoever they play this postseason.
“We’ve had a great senior group all season long, a lot of them have started for more than two years,” said head coach Amy Civalier. “They know the expectations we have and I think they’ll all do well.”
Game one starts at 4 and game two starts at 6, with the if-necessary rubber match set to go tomorrow at 4 p.m.
Last but not least is Portal, who just missed hosting a playoff game by .42 points in the class A public playoff ratings. They settle to drive two hours west across Georgia to face Hawkinsville of region 4-A, a team that head coach Travis Motes says is eerily similar to his own.
“We look just alike,” Motes said. “They’ve got one pitcher who’s not overpowering. If you can hit the ball a lot, they’ll make mistakes in the field. And they hit the ball decent. When I told the girls that, I said ‘who does that remind you of?’”
When you look at the numbers it’s hard not to notice the similarities. Portal is 15-7, Hawkinsville is 16-8. Portal’s scored 177 runs this season, Hawkinsville’s scored 197. The big difference comes on run differential, where Portal’s is +49 and Hawkinsville’s is +97. Do keep in mind neither team plays in an overly competitive region.
The key to Portal’s success will be their pitcher, Keri Carter. Carter has started 19 of Portal’s 22 games this year and has posted a very impressive 2.00 ERA with 65 strikeouts to 23 walks. She also happens to be one of Portal’s best hitters, being second on the team in OPS (.943) and RBI (18).
“We’ve got to go into these games thinking we can win,” Carter said. “As a team that’s what we’ve been trying to talk ourselves into.”
Alongside Cater on offense will be one of the best middle infields in all of class A, shortstop Faith Ogelsby and second baseman Dashonda Morgan. Ogelsby leads the team in OPS (1.117) and RBI (22) while Morgan isn’t far behind with a .917 OPS.
The first game will start at 2:00 p.m. to account for Hawkinsville not having any lights at their field, and Game 2 will start at 4:30 p.m. at the latest. The rubber match will be played tomorrow at 3 p.m. if necessary.
Chris Stanley may be reached at (912) 489-9408.