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Union Grove, Strong Rock gear up for Elite 8 softball tournaments

By Doug Gorman

dgorman@news-daily.com

Another state softball title could return to the Southern Crescent this weekend, but if the championship trophy is to find its way back this way, it will have a new home.

Four-time defending Class A champion Eagle's Landing Christian won't even be in Columbus today when the Elite Eight tournament starts at the South Commons Softball Complex.

The Lady Chargers watched their hopes of repeating as state champions for a fifth time end with a loss to Hebron Christian in what amounted to a play-in game earlier this month.

Now, it will be up to Union Grove, who is trying to win the Class AAAA title for the first time in school history, and GHSA newcomer Strong Rock Christian if a state softball title is to stay in Henry County.

Strong Rock (20-11), which is ranked 10th in the Gasports.com Class A Coaches poll, takes on third-ranked Savvanah Chrisitan (26-8). The first pitch is set for noon.

Union Grove (29-9) is ranked sixth in the Class AAAA poll and takes on top-ranked Madision County (32-3) in a 3:3O start.

If Union Grove wins its first-round game in the double elimination tournament, it will take on the winner if the Greenbrier and Loganville game today at 7:30 p.m. If it loses, it drops to the losers'-bracket round Friday at 11 am.

If Strong Rock wins, it plays again today at 5:30 against the Irwin County and Providence Christian winner. A loss sends it to the losers bracket Friday at 9 a.m. against the Bryan Couny-Gordon-Lee loser.

Union Grove notes:

Twist of Fate: Union Grove's Megan Betsa is only a sophomore, but she could win her second state championship ring if the Lady Wolverines go the distance in Columbus, albeit with a different team.

A year ago, Betsa led the ELCA Lady Chargers to the their fourth state crown, but according to coach Rod Pipkin she has fit right in .

"When she came over I don't think she knew any players. When a player works hard, plays hard and never complains, it's an easy for a girl to fit in. And that's what she did. She was the hardest worker in practice," he said.

Her state championship experience could go along way in determining this team's fate.

"She won it as a 14-year-old freshman. I think it also drives these girls that our school has never won a state championship. That's their goal to bring one back. I think they're pretty driven to do that. he said.

Offensive firepower: The Lady Wolverines are pretty stout when it comes to the middle of the line up with Halyey Chambley, Jordan Corbin and Betsa. That could go along way in helping the team make a run this weekend.

"They hit 2-3-4, so you can't pitch around all of them. When you hit there, you're going to put some pressure on the other team. Plus I've got some quality hitters behind them. (Senior third baseman) Kelci Richter's played in a lot of big games here. (Senior designated hitter) Brittney Willbanks has a lot of big hits. (Senior catcher) Kaci Bush, she's been on varsity all four years. They're just experienced players. They all play travel ball. They're used to this," Pipkin said.

On any concerns going into today: Getting to Columbus is the goal of every softball team in the state, but Union Grove wants more than to just make an appearence.

"Our one concern would be that our girls not be just satisfied with just being here, and I don't think they are. I think they want it. I think they want to win state. We have to score runs."

Strong Rock:

New Territory: Strong Rock Christian coach Eddie Wise wasn't really sure what to expect out of his team this season as it entered competition in the GHSA for the first time ever.

What he got was solid pitching from junior Katie Shultes, who struckout 48 batters in her last four games, and a ton of offense from senior Jessie Romines, who leads the team with a .440 batting average and three home runs. First baseman Ansley Hughes' best sport might be basketball, but she has swung a potent bat this year for the the Lady Patriots.

"You never know who you are going to find and who is going to step up and contribute," Wise said.

Big win: The Lady Patriots might have knocked off four-time defending state champion ELCA twice this year, but the teams biggest win might have come this month when it swept Excel Christian to open the state tournament. Excel came into the best-of-three series having already beaten Strong Rock this year.

On any concerns going into today: Wise knows there is one thing his team will have to do if it wants to get a win against Savannah Christian--find away to slow them down.

"We have to keep their No. 1 and No. 2 hitters off base, and if Katie is hitting here spots with pitches, and letting our defense work we should be find. Our defense has been playing really well, we have had one error in the last four ball games."