DANIELSVILLE – Madison County went onto the field one more time Thursday night, needing just three outs to win the Region 8-4A Championship and clinch home-field advantage through two rounds of the state playoffs.
The Red Raiders led Oconee County 9-4, but its been an up-and-down game for ace Emma Strickland, Who retired nine of the first 10 batters she faced through three innings, but struggled in the fourth and fifth innings and allowed Oconee County to tie the game 4-4.
Her struggles sent Lily Crane and Claire Strickland to the bullpen, but their services weren't needed. The Raiders rallied in the fifth, breaking the tie and adding an extra insurance run. Strickland returned in the sixth and retired the side in order. Three more insurance runs came in the bottom half, giving the defense a comfortable lead in the top of the seventh.
Two pop flies and a soft groundball later, Madison County was celebrating its second-straight region title
Mostly, The Red Raiders celebrated the culmination of a long season that saw it hang around .500 and fall behind in the region standings for the first time since 2017. This championship was different.
"A lot of times in athletics, after you've had success with pretty much the same group, you come back and you're, maybe, a little complacent," said head coach Ken Morgan. "We went through a little bit of a slump, but the kids found a way and we changed a few practices to make them a little more energetic to get back in the mode of practicing hard and working hard together as a team.
"They bought in and this is a result. I credit them on fighting through that and not giving up. This is where are goals were at the beginning of the year, to win the region championship at home and take the steps to Columbus. They're meeting their goals and that's awesome to see through the adversity. I'm proud of each and every one of them."
Despite the drama in the middle innings, Strickland says she was always confident the team would get the job done.
"It was kind of an eventful night," she said. "I knew the whole time that we would pull this off. We always have. I always know I have my girls behind my back. This was a pretty cool experience. Our girls do a great job of putting up some runs."
Strickland led all pitchers in the game with six strikeouts through seven innings, she also had one hit for an RBI at the plate. Ella Chancey had the best day on offense with three hits, two RBIs and two runs scored. Crane and Skylar Minish each had two hits. Crane had two RBIs, while Minish had one RBI and she crossed home once.
FAST OPENING INNINGS
The game moved at a brisk pace through the first three innings. Each team only had one runner each base and neither reached on hits.
The game transitioned from a pitchers dual to a shootout in the fourth inning. The Warriors' leadoff batter fouled off five two-strike pitches and eventually drew a walk. She stole second and advanced to third on a single. A bad throw by catcher Gracie Nix allowed the Warriors to score. Before the third out, Oconee County hit a double to bring in a second run.
RED RAIDERS RALLY IN THE FOURTH, TAKE OVER IN THE FIFTH
Riley Ernst led off the inning and watched four pitches go by for a walk. Her team-leading on-base percentage helped produce the late season improvements, now its put a crucial run on base in the region title game.
"She's done a great job, it's all you can ask out of her, to get on base," Morgan said. "Get the leadoff on in high school, you're going to score a lot of the time. She did her job to get on base. Then we started rolling after that."
Chancey hit a hard grounder up the middle, putting runners at the corners. Kennedy Dixon smashed a grounder into left field, bringing Ernst home and cutting the lead. Strickland laid down a sacrifice bunt to move the runners over and Crane followed with a game-tying line drive. Two more runs came from a sacrifice fly by Claire Strickland and a double by Skylar Minish. After four innings, Madison County led 4-2.
The Warriors tied the game with a pair of singles in the top of the fifth, and the game stayed tied through the first two Raider batters in the bottom half. Then, with a 3-0 count, Ella Chancey had the green light to swing and she belted a line drive to left field. Dixon followed her with a walk. Emma Strickland and Crane hit singles to bring both runners home to take a 6-4 lead.
"It's hot and they (Oconee County) were swinging the bat well," Morgan said. "But Emma got it back under control and we got some run support for her. It was a tight game. They scored and that kind of loosened us up to just relax and score.
"We told them to put that foot on the gas peddle and keep going."
Skylar Minish opened the sixth inning with a double and cruised to third base on a sacrifice bunt. Laken Minish brought her home with a double. Chancey came back to the plate with Minish and Ernst in scoring position, and hit a hard grounder up the middle to bring both speedsters home, extending the lead to 9-4.
PEAKING AT THE RIGHT TIME
The joy of winning the region is a stark contrast of how the team looked in early September. Madison County hung around .500, struggling with errors and stranded base runners. After losing two of three games at Greenbrier, the Raiders won seven of their last eight regular season games and now add three post season wins.
Dixon outlined what the team did to improve in the middle of the season.
"Stayed after and worked on hitting," she said. "A bunch of our people look up to our seniors and when one stays after and works harder, they're going to go in that path. I always managed to stay after and work on hitting, fielding, whatever."
Morgan credits the insertion of Ernst into the starting lineup as a major reason for the team's resurgence. Ernst became a constant fixture in the lineup during the trip to Greenbrier on Sept. 6, and has reached base in 12 of 13 games. The confidence she showed at the junior varsity level played a large role in Morgan moving her to varsity.
"That's what we saw out of her," he said. "That's what you want out of a kid. She started at that spot, and kept working and working as a JV player, and got her opportunities and made the most of them.
"That's a good thing to see out of high school kids, to never give up. To keep working and working and make somebody notice you."
Ernst credits all she's learned from other slappers, like Laken Minish and Brooke Hooper, for her appearance at the plate. Hitting behind Minish in the lineup also helped Ernst deal with the nerves of making her first few starts on varsity.
"I wanted to be in the lineup, but I also wanted to help my team," Ernst said. "I did whatever I could to find my way on base, to get runs in and score runs. It gets the energy going and when the energy gets going, it makes the bats and the defense work.
"(Minish being on base) really calms my nerves, because I know she's going to do her job. All I have to do is find her a way over to second or third. I've learned a lot from (Minish and Hooper), attitude-wise, effort-wise. I look up to both of them."
AVOIDING A ROAD TRIP
Because Madison County won the region, it will host the first round of the state tournament. With a win, The Raiders will host again the following week. The Red Raiders avoid a long bus ride to northwest Georgia Tuesday and a potential ride to middle Georgia or south Georgia afterwards.
"Winning a region championship is always big when you're trying to get to Columbus," Morgan said. "You won't face another No. 1 seed from anybody else until you get to Columbus. We'll get a No. 4 seed and a winner of a No. 2 versus No. 3, and we'll get them here at home. Winning a region championship is big for that reason, to keep our kids at home, keep them in their own beds at night and practicing here.
"It's exciting just to win the region championship, just to be in state. If we were the fourth place team, we'd still be happy and battling. We're very excited about being here. The fans have been great, support has been great."
Players on the team echoed his sentiment.
"We wanted to stay home until we got to Columbus," Strickland said. "That was our goal and that's what we set out for."
Minish added, "It's really exciting, because we've all worked really hard throughout the whole season. Long, hot bus rides are fun, because we make them fun. But the advantage of playing on the home field is really good."