Apalachee head softball coach Allan Bailey knew his team would have its hands full on the road with Effingham County in the second round of the GHSA Class AAAAAA playoffs. But because the Wildcats had been battle-tested by a difficult schedule throughout the season, he liked their chances all the same.
In the end, his feeling proved to be right.
The Wildcats toppled Effingham 7-2 in the third game of the best-of-three series Thursday, Oct. 17, in Springfield, advancing to the double-elimination Elite Eight tournament in Columbus for the second time in program history, their first trip since 2007. The tournament will run Thursday, Oct. 24, through Saturday, Oct. 26.
"We felt like the caliber softball we've seen was maybe one they might not have seen as much of this year, and that if we played well, we could cause them some problems," Bailey said of Effingham County, which had won 16 straight games entering the series. "We have a lot of respect for what they did this year; they're a tremendous team and it was a great playoff atmosphere. Our girls just battled. They were relentless and did all the little things they needed to do to win the series.
"We had a killer draw these first two rounds with Harrison and Effingham County, but we've bunted, we've hit and run, we've squeezed, we've done everything we needed to do to pick up victories. Everything we've been doing since the offseason has gotten us to this moment."
After Apalachee (19-10-1) took game 1 of the series 4-1 on Wednesday, Oct. 16, the Rebels (25-5) bounced back to win 5-2 in game 2 to force a third game Oct. 17. But game 3 belonged to the Wildcats and junior pitcher Emily Hodnett, who turned in yet another stellar outing in the circle. Hodnett went the distance for the Wildcats, allowing just one earned run on three hits while striking out nine batters without any walks.
The Rebels got all three of those hits in the bottom of the first inning, scoring both of their runs on two singles, an error and a double to take an early 2-0 lead.
But Apalachee roared back with four runs in the second, using aggressive base running and taking advantage of some defensive miscues by the Rebels. S'Niyah Stinson led off with a single, moved to second when Morgan Reynolds reached on an error and stole third to put runners on the corners. With one out, Alexis Griffith reached first on an error off a bunt, plating Stinson. Reynolds stole home, and Sam Woody's RBI groundout brought in Griffith to give Apalachee the lead. Kensley Kraus then drew a two-out walk, stole second, moved to third on a single by Madyson Coe and stole home to make it 4-2.
That was more than enough support for Hodnett, who retired 20 out of the last 21 batters she faced. Effingham County's only base runner after the first came on a Wildcat error with one out in the fifth.
"She just pitched unbelievably well," Bailey said of Hodnett, who also pitched a complete game in game 1 and broke a scoreless tie in the top of the fifth with an RBI triple in the 4-1 win. "She just didn't give them any hope, and we played pretty clean defensively. We had to be careful with that lineup because they can swing it, top to bottom, but she was making great pitches and spinning that ball wherever she wanted to put it."
The Wildcats extended their lead to 5-2 in the fifth inning of game 3 on an RBI single by Griffith, and Coe, the senior catcher and steady presence at the top of the lineup the last few seasons, launched a two-run homer in the sixth to break it open.
"You could just feel it, that we had it right then," Bailey said of Coe's blast. "It gave us that sense of calmness to be able to finish the game and not have the pressure of trying to protect a close lead. It took all the life out of their crowd and allowed us to slam the door.
"It was a tale of two series like (the come-from-behind first-round series win against Harrison). We used the momentum of winning the second game to carry us in game 3 of that series, and we used it as a point of emphasis to our team when we met at the hotel Wednesday night. We knew Effingham would try to use that momentum of winning game 2 to their advantage, and they got up on us early. But it was neat to see how our girls responded. There was no panic, no quit in them. They knew it was time to go to work, and we were able to put our head down and kick it into an extra gear."
The Wildcats will play their first game of the Elite Eight tournament at 2 p.m. Thursday against Pope (26-4), which has won 19 straight games and hasn't lost since a 3-2 setback to River Ridge on Aug. 28. Other teams in the tournament include Dacula, Lee County, Creekview, Evans, River Ridge and Northgate.
If the Wildcats beat Pope, they would play at 8 p.m. Thursday against the winner of the River Ridge-Northgate game. If they lose to Pope, they would drop into the losers bracket and face the loser of that game at noon Friday, Oct. 25.
Bailey said Friday the Wildcats had done their research and gotten their scouting reports on Pope, which he called "a great team."
"We're going to see the best of the best in this tournament," he said. "We feel like Pope is a good matchup for us. They're a very good hitting team, but we feel like the pitching of Emily and S'Niyah can keep us in those games. Pitching is going to be at a premium and it'll take multiple girls to get the job done.
"We're excited about taking our team down there. The journey has not been easy, but we feel good about the experiences that have brought us here, and we believe we're a tough team, too."