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Union Grove favored in Class AAAA as softball tournament opens

For everybody else, Monday might have been Columbus Day. But for those who hope to win a state softball championship, it's Columbus Month.

All roads lead to Columbus for the Elite Eight in each class of the state softball tournament, which begins Wednesday. For Union Grove, which is ranked No. 1 in Class AAAA in the Prepcountry.com GACA poll, getting to Columbus might be 90 percent of the battle.

If the Wolverines make it to Columbus, chances are they already will have knocked off the toughest competition they will face. A second-round series against Greenbrier, the Class AAAA runner-up that eliminated Union Grove last season, seems likely if the Wolverines get past first-round opponent Morrow.

"Our region's final four is as tough as any Elite Eight we can face," Union Grove coach Rod Pipkin said.

Normally, the Wolverines wouldn't play Greenbrier — a team that won 15 straight region titles — this early in the state tournament. But the Wolfpack got upset, drew a lower seed and an earlier possible date with Union Grove.

"We're up to the task," Pipkin said. "We've been through the battles."

Ace pitcher Megan Betsa, who won a state championship at Eagle's Landing Christian as a freshman, has been through the fire. Given that some of the toughest teams in the state are within short driving distance of the Southern Crescent, Union Grove will be hard to surprise by the time the Elite Eight rolls around.

At 28-4, the Wolverines have already weathered some of the toughest tests Class AAAA can muster. Union Grove whipped defending champion Jones County 9-1 behind Betsa in August, though the Greyhounds avenged that defeat with a one-run victory in September. The Wolverines reeled off 19 consecutive victories over one stretch.

On the other end of the spectrum sits more-youthful-than-usual Luella, which is 8-19-1 and faces a four-hour trip to south Georgia and a first-round matchup against Coffee. The Lions' play of recent weeks encourages coach Seth Harris, who can at least envision his one-senior roster pulling an upset.

"It'd be huge," Harris said. "We've got the perfect bracket setup. We've got a great shot. It would be an accomplishment if we could do it."

The Lions' record may be a little deceiving, given the level of competition Harris went out of his way to play. Luella ran into the Class AAAA champion Jones County and Class AA champ Buford on consecutive games. The Lions also played Loganville, a team that made it to Columbus last year, and Harrison, which was runner-up to two-time Class AAAAA champion Collins Hill last season.