As the 2011 softball season began, Chandler Dennard had two goals for his team — win a region championship and make it to the Final Four.
Bulloch Academy easily accomplished the first step, going 6-0 in Region 4-AAA play, and is now within a pair of wins from achieving the second as the Lady Gators host Stratford Academy today in a best-of-three series in the quarterfinals of the GISA state playoffs.
“All season long, people have had a good idea about who the best four teams in the state are,” said Dennard. “We were on that list and so was Statford. As it turns out, we’ll have to play them before the Final Four, but we’d have to face those teams at some point, so we might as well get them
The Lady Eagles are two-time defending state champions and have been ranked ahead of the Lady Gators throughout the season, but Bulloch has plenty of reason to think it can succeed. First, the Gators have the luxury of playing at their home field, where they have been perfect this season. Then there are the three head-to-head meetings between the teams this season, of which Bulloch has taken two.
“That definitely gives our team a lot of confidence,” said Dennard. “We know that we are capable of beating anybody. Of course, Stratford was missing one of its best players in one of those games. She’s back now and we know that we’re in for a fight.”
Sporting the state titles to prove the point, there are few teams in the state more dangerous than the Eagles. Stratford is a team that is capable of scoring runs in bunches and turning a game on its head with just a few swings of the bat.
“We know that our offense needs to be ready to play,” said Dennard. “Stratford can score. The key is to limit the big hits. At this time of the season and with this kind of team, everyone has to be focused on each pitch.”
Doing that will require some stamina as the teams could be in for a long day.
The series is a best-of-three contest, but the winner will be decided today. The first game will begin at 11 a.m. with the second following 30 minutes after and a third game – if necessary – following that.
With two teams of the highest caliber on the field, this could turn into a war of attrition, but that’s a battle that the Gators are prepared for.
“Our girls can play three in a row if need be,” said Dennard. “That’s what they face in travel ball and preseason tournaments.”
A pair of Gator pitchers will be counted on to get past the Eagles and into the Final Four. Sophomore Madelyn Vickery and junior Lauren Dennard have been a dual force this season, going the distance in starts just as easily as they can come in to relieve each other.
“We know that Stratford is good,” said Vckery. “But we’re confident. Both Lauren and I can throw a lot of pitches and keep them off balance. We’ve come together as a team to play really well this season and we don’t want to stop now.”
Mike Anthony can be reached at (912) 489-9404.