Strong pitching and timely hitting has been the recipe for success all season long for the Apalachee softball team. And it worked like a charm again Tuesday, Oct. 27, in a pair of 1-0 victories over Northgate High School in the GHSA Class 5A quarterfinal series in Newnan.
Sophomore shortstop Tiyara Wingfield’s solo homer leading off the top of the sixth inning in Game 1 accounted for the only run and hit over seven innings between the two sides, and senior pitcher Emily Hodnett turned in yet another dominant performance with a no-hitter and 10 strikeouts. Wingfield’s bat supplied the only run again in the second game of the best-of-three series, as her two-out RBI single in the bottom of the fourth was backed up by the combined three-hit shutout from Katelyn Flanders and Hodnett and the Wildcats advanced to this weekend’s double-elimination Final Four tournament in Columbus.
“It was just a great night and fun to see two outstanding pitchers battle in that first game and then the same thing in the second game,” Apalachee head coach Allan Bailey said. “And to have the same girl come through with the big hit in both games was special. Give their pitcher all the credit in the world. She threw a great game and made one mistake over the middle of the plate, and Tiyara was ready for it and hit an absolute bomb.
“You can’t ask for much more excitement in a game where the margin for error was so slim for both teams. And for her to turn around in that second game and come up with the big hit when we were struggling to put something together was great. And then you turn it over to our pitching, which worked out the way we planned it.”
Apalachee ran its playoff record to 6-0 through the first three rounds and is now 28-6 on the year, a school record for wins in a season. The Wildcats are now set make their second straight trip to Columbus in their second year under Bailey. While Columbus has traditionally hosted eight teams in each classification, it was scaled back to four this year and the softball players were condensed into two weeks due to coronavirus-related reasons.
Apalachee will face Whitewater at 3 p.m. Friday, Oct. 30, in its first game and will then play at 7 p.m. in either the winners’ bracket or losers’ bracket game. The Wildcats will be looking to do more damage than last season’s appearance — when they went 0-2 and lost a pair of 3-2 games to Pope and Northgate in the Class 6A tournament — and they may be in line to just that if they continue to get the kind of pitching performances that Hodnett and Flanders have delivered to this point.
Hodnett, the Georgia State commit, was dazzling again in Game 1 on Tuesday, allowing just three walks and throwing 62 of her 89 pitches for strikes while fanning 10 hitters, narrowly outdueling Northgate’s Olivia Cato, who struck out 14 Wildcats over seven innings and allowed only two baserunners. Unfortunately for Cato, Wingfield touched all four bases with her shot over the left-field fence, and that proved to be the difference-maker.
After Flanders started and worked into the fifth inning of Game 2, allowing just three hits and two walks with three strikeouts, Hodnett took over and picked up the save, tossing the final 2 1/3 innings and striking out five, putting her at 251 punch-outs through 142 1/3 innings this season and inching her closer to the school career strikeout mark of 601.
Hodnett, a four-year star in the circle for the Wildcats, has taken it to another level in her final high school season and is now 20-4 on the year with a 1.18 ERA and 0.78 WHIP. She is 4-0 with a save and two no-hitters in five games this postseason, and she has allowed just one run on two hits (all in a 2-1, complete-game win in Game 1 of the second-round series against Calhoun) while compiling 40 strikeouts in 25 1/3 innings of work.
“The talent level with her is through the roof, but the biggest difference with her is her mindset and mentality has greatly improved,” Bailey said. “That was big teaching point for us in the offseason, to get her to trust the stuff she has. And from the mental aspect, she’s just been on a different plane and trusted herself. The job she’s done and the job our pitching coach, Vance Medlam, has done is just phenomenal.”
Flanders has been impressive in her own right as the team’s No. 2 pitcher and is now 8-1 with a 2.17 ERA and 1.04 WHIP. She is part of a strong sophomore class for the Wildcats that has made an impact since their freshmen year, and another one, Wingfield, provided the offensive heroics Tuesday after sophomore catcher Sam Woody lifted the Wildcats to the Elite Eight last Thursday with a walk-off three-run homer to beat Calhoun 6-3 in nine innings in Game 2 of that series and complete the sweep.
“As great a job as she has done offensively for us, she’s been an incredible defensive shortstop,” Bailey said of Wingfield. “We’ve got all the confidence in the world in her. She’s a hard worker, a great baserunner, and she’s hit almost .500 in the back half of the season. She’s the type of player who can put the team on her back, and it’s showing at the right time.”
Apalachee was set to get in a full day of practice Wednesday before traveling to Columbus on Thursday and getting in a light workout Friday before the Final Four tournament starts.
The Wildcats’ first opponent Friday, Whitewater (24-8), won a pair of one-run games over Loganville on Tuesday to punch its ticket to Columbus. Loganville finished in second place in Region 8 during the regular season, one spot ahead of Apalachee. Region 8 champion Walnut Grove was also swept Tuesday in the quarterfinals, falling 5-1 and 9-0 to Starr’s Mill. Starr’s Mill will play at 3 p.m. Friday against either Jones County or Woodland of Cartersville. Those two teams split a doubleheader Tuesday and were set to play the rubber match of the series Wednesday.
The Whitewater Wildcats are also making their second straight Columbus appearance and their third in five years.
“We respect them and what they’ve done over the years. They’re a quality program,” Bailey said. “We feel like we match up with them very well. They’ve got a tough lineup and a very good pitcher. We feel like maybe our offense will have a better shot to produce some runs, but they also put the ball in play so we’ve got to be on our game pitching-wise and defensively and be ready for the speed they bring to the table.
“We’re excited and pumped to be in this spot. We’ve been preparing for this all year. Last year we made some mistakes in Columbus that cost us those games, and we’ve used those to motivate us to be better this year. It was nice to get that revenge win over Northgate after they knocked us out last year, but we’re looking for more. We’ve prepared with a brutal schedule, and those tight games we’ve been in have helped us make it to where we are.”