DANIELSVILLE - Five weeks ago, the Madison County Red Raider softball team wasn’t even thinking about Columbus.
Having just dropped to 9-10 on the season after a midseason loss to Archer, the Red Raiders (22-10, 10-1 Region 8-4A) were more interested in fixing the issues which hampered (them) at the beginning of the year. Region titles and state playoff wins had to come after.
Not only did the Raiders improve, they returned to form. After Wednesday night’s sweep of No. 2 seed West Laurens, Madison County is riding a 13-game win streak into the state championship tournament in Columbus.
“It’s a great feeling to know that you’re going to finish in Columbus,” said head coach Ken Morgan. “If you look back at our season, these girls have been able to really turn it around. That’s big to get it turned around and finish at Columbus. It’s special for these girls.
“We have a lot of experience. This junior and senior class has been leading us and they’ve got a lot of experience. Hopefully they just relax, play and have fun.”
The best of Morgan’s philosophy, the “Raider way,” was on display Wednesday. Madison County won a pitchers' duel 3-2 in game one before routing West Laurens 7-0 in game two.
Emma Strickland had one of the best pitching performances of the season in game one. She struck out 13 batters and highlighted her day with an immaculate inning in the second. She only allowed three hits, but a two-run home run in the top of the seventh gave the game a little drama.
“She always does a good job,” Morgan said. “She always keeps bats shut down. They don’t put too many hits together against her. That last inning, they scored the two, but we were up three. We told her ‘Look, the first girl can’t hurt you, the second girl can’t hurt you. You just have to throw strikes.’
“She’s a shutdown pitcher. When she’s on, she’s tough. She spreads the pitches around and gives us a great chance in the circle.”
Lily Crane also pitched well, striking out three batters and twice getting out of jams where West Laurens had two runners on base with less than two outs. Crane relied more on her infield, particularly shortstop Skylar Minish and third baseman Ella Chancey who fielded most plays. They combined for 11 putouts in 14 chances.
“Lily came in and did a great job too,” Morgan said. “She came in and spotted the ball well and threw the ball hard. The drop ball was good and she did a good job, credit both of them.”
The other side of the “Raider way,” timely and two-strike hitting, was also on display. Crane’s second-inning bunt single moved courtesy runner Macey Echols to third base and Echols scored on a wild pitch, giving the Raiders a 1-0 lead.
In the fifth inning, Ella Chancey smashed a 2-2 count pitch beyond the fence in center field, extending the lead to 2-0. With Brooke Hooper standing on second base in the sixth inning, Skylar Minish hit a hard ground ball up the middle and Hooper rounded third base for the third score of the game.
Madison County took a while to convert base runners into runs. Keeping hits away from West Laurens’ shortstop Smith and center fielder Wilbur was an issue. The two combined to be a perfect 11-of-11 on putout chances in game one.
Smith negated Laken Minish the entire game, keeping the Raiders’ best base runner off the base paths. Wilbur’s range in the outfield prevented four hits with runners on base.
“She (Smith) didn’t have an error and it felt like she had 25 tries,” Morgan said.
In the second game, Madison County sprayed hits around the field, limiting Smith and Wilbur to just five put out chances. The result was seven runs scored by Madison County, beginning in the third inning when Lexi Jordan and Laken Minish reached base and advanced to scoring position before the first out.
Chancey drove in the first run with a sacrifice bunt, but Kennedy Dixon scored the runs that are the talk of the town. After hooking four line drives mere feet from the left field line, and watching three balls go by to fill the count, Dixon launched a two-run homer way beyond the fence in center field. Madison County led 3-0 after three innings.
“The first one (foul ball) I hit felt amazing,” said Dixon, a senior, who played her last home game as a Red Raider. “But I eventually got to the point where I knew what I had to do, wait a little bit longer and hit it like I should. It felt good. I could totally feel it (off the bat).”
Dixon also embraced Wilbur, West Laurens’ only senior, with a hug after the game.
“I know how it would feel,” she said. “She’s their only senior and I know it would sucks. All I can do is give love.”
The Raiders added three more runs in the fourth inning after starting with a double by Crane and a walk by Hooper. Skylar Minish drove in the first run with a line drive to left field, Jordan hit a sacrifice fly and Minish scored on Laken Minish’s sacrifice bunt. The seventh, and final run of the game came on a Jordan single to center field which scored Hooper from second base.
“It’s an amazing feeling. I’ve done it with the best teams all years that we’ve gone and I’m going to do it with the best team this year,” Dixon said. “We played well, we should have scored more. I’m not complaining, but it shouldn’t have been that close, but we got the win.”
The 4A state tournament begins on Thursday, October 24. Madison County plays Northside, Columbus at 6:00 p.m. Win or lose, the Raiders will play at least once on Friday, October 25. The tournament ends on Saturday, October 26.