AHS softball

The Apalachee softball team swept Calhoun on Thursday, Oct. 22, in the second round of the GHSA Class 5A playoffs. The Wildcats (26-6) will travel to Newnan on Tuesday, Oct. 27, to begin a best-of-three quarterfinal series with Northgate with a doubleheader beginning at 5 p.m. 

Apalachee sophomore catcher Sam Woody had the tall task of replacing the graduated Madyson Coe, who had not just been a mainstay at the top of the Wildcats’ lineup and behind the plate for the last few years, but also a key team leader.

But Apalachee head coach Allan Bailey said at the beginning of this season he had total confidence in Woody — who saw regular playing time around the diamond, including behind the plate, as a freshman — to fill those shoes. And on Thursday, Oct. 22, she delivered with the biggest moment of her varsity career at Calhoun in the second round of the GHSA Class 5A playoffs.

Woody drilled a line-drive, three-run homer over the left-field fence in the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 2 to lift the Wildcats to a 6-3 victory and a series sweep of the Yellow Jackets.

Apalachee (26-6) advanced to its second consecutive Elite Eight and will travel to Newnan to take on Northgate High School (17-13) in a best-of-three series that will begin with a doubleheader at 5 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 27. An if-necessary third game would be played at 5 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 28, and the winner of the series will move on to the double-elimination Final Four tournament Oct. 30-31 in Columbus.

After riding the dominant pitching of senior Emily Hodnett to a 2-1 victory over the Region 7 champion Yellow Jackets in Game 1 on Thursday, the Wildcats, the No. 3 seed from Region 8, took an early lead in Game 2 with a run each in the bottom of the first and second innings. Calhoun responded with a pair of runs in the top of the third on an RBI double and an error on a fielder’s choice and then took a lead in the fourth on an RBI double.

But Apalachee sophomore second baseman Morgan Reynolds tied the game with a solo homer leading off the bottom of the fifth, and the two teams held each other in check there until the bottom of the ninth. Hodnett had a one-out single and Reynolds was hit by a pitch before a force play for the second out on a would-be single to left by Destiny Sexton. That set up the heroics from Woody, who probably couldn’t have picked a better time for her first-career homer.

“It’s something she’ll always remember and something we’ll always remember as a team,” Bailey said. “Good things happen to good people, and Sam won our coaches’ award last year by doing everything the right way. She learned from Madyson, who was a great leader in our program for several years, and she stepped right into that role. She plays and carries herself like you would expect a junior or senior to, so it was great to see her come through in that situation, in front of a huge crowd, at a tough place to play, against a great program.

“We were on another level with our energy.”

Bailey and the Wildcats knew they would be in for tough fight with Calhoun (21-10), a perennial playoff program, but they were confident they may have the “X-factor” in the series with Hodnett in the circle. And the Georgia State commit once again showed why, going the distance in Game 1 with seven innings of work and allowing just two hits with two walks and striking out 10. The only real blemish on her line was a solo homer by Calhoun senior catcher and Georgia commit Lyndi Rae Davis in the bottom of the fourth inning that gave the Yellow Jackets a 1-0 lead.

Apalachee grabbed the lead in top of the sixth when Allyssa Willer led off with a double and later scored on a two-out double by Reynolds before Sexton’s RBI single made it 2-1. Hodnett got into a jam in the bottom of the frame, surrendering a one-out double and a walk and hit batsman with two outs to load the bases. But she struck out the next hitter on the straight pitches to escape trouble and then worked a perfect seventh with a pair of punch-outs to nail down the win.

Then, after Katelyn Flanders worked the first five innings of Game 2 and allowed three runs (two earned), Hodnett entered the circle in the sixth and tossed four more scoreless, hitless frames, with two free passes and five strikeouts. Hodnett is now 19-4 on the year with a 1.26 ERA, 0.81 WHIP and has fanned 236 hitters in 133 innings.

“We knew Calhoun was a very good team, but Emily was the difference-maker,” Bailey said. “She made one mistake in that first game to a great hitter, but she bounced right back and we were able to close it out. With her pitching, we felt confident that if we could get a couple runs we would be in good shape. We played some outstanding defense and got the timely hitting that we needed.

“The best part of our team is it is really player-led, and that makes our job as coaches so much easier. They came together and fought for each other, and that propelled us to play at an extremely high level. We like our matchup with Northgate in a two-out-three series and feel confident about our pitching depth.”

Bailey, in his second season at the helm, has the Wildcats in the Elite Eight for a second straight year. While they would normally be gearing up to head to Columbus, they’ll instead play at Northgate after the GHSA condensed its softball postseason into two weeks and trimmed the number of teams from each classification in Columbus down to four for coronavirus-related reasons.

Northgate, the No. 3 seed out of Region 2, swept Region 4 No. 4 seed Union Grove in the Sweet Sixteen on Thursday after sweeping past Mundy’s Mill in the first round. The Vikings knocked out the Wildcats in a losers’ bracket elimination game in Columbus last year, 3-2, in a game in which the Wildcats were plagued by costly errors.

But the Wildcats are a team eager to turn the page and be the last one left standing. And they are unfazed by having to go on the road or by whoever they face after going through a tough gauntlet of a non-region schedule and playing in a competitive Region 8 that still has three teams left in the playoffs — champion Walnut Grove and No. 2 seed Loganville are in the Elite 8, while No. 4 seed Greenbrier made it to the Sweet Sixteen before falling to Woodland-Cartersville.

“We’ve got a little bit of a chip on our shoulder,” Bailey said. “We feel like we’re more experienced and head and shoulders better than we were last year. Those mistakes we made down in Columbus have been motivating us and we are playing to get back down there and have some redemption.

“Northgate is a strong program. They have a really good pitcher, so we expect another battle. It’s nothing necessarily that we can’t hit. We’ve just got to be disciplined and put together some good at-bats. It’s why we played the schedule we did, and we’ve had these kinds of battles just about every week.”

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