Ask Eastside High School senior softball player Taylor Baggert what makes this Sweet 16 Eastside softball squad different from last year’s Sweet 16 bunch, and she’ll give you an intriguing answer.
“We keep it 20,” Baggert said.
That little phrase prompted a spark of enthusiasm in senior Coley Edwards, because she couldn’t help but to chime in and provide further explanation.
“Eighty percent of your mind wants to go negative in any situation,” Edwards said. “But the 20 percent of your mind wants to stay positive. This year we’ve tried hard to keep our minds on that 20 percent and stay up all the time.”
Perhaps no better example of the Eagles' “20 mentality” exists than back on August 16 when Eastside traveled to College Park to face Woodward Academy in its first region contest. In that game, the Eagles found themselves down 6-0 at the end of the first inning but began chipping away until exploding for a five-run sixth inning to put coach Heather Wood’s team up for good.
It was the perfect example of the kind of game-changing camaraderie that’s positioned this team for a shot at making the quarterfinals in Columbus. Alyssa Betts and Alley Allgood said almost simultaneously. “This year we know how to get each other up,” Betts said.
That team intimacy didn’t occur in a vacuum, either. Eastside has been powered by the senior leadership of Lauren Beshears, Edwards, Allgood, Casey Fincher, Taylor Baggert, Madison McCrorey, Ashley Williams and Betts.
The “Eastside nine” has had pretty much their entire softball playing lives to figure each other out. Wood says that fact makes the Eagles a coach’s dream.
“They’re really an easy group to work with,” Wood said. “A lot of these girls have played together since age five or six. Their ability to gel really started with travel ball. They’ve just grown up together and played together forever.”
That’s the reason why McCrorey said she knows exactly what she needs to do to keep her teammates focused.
“I’m really loud,” McCrorey said, her statement accompanied by chuckles of affirmation from her teammates. “I’ve always been loud, so I just know…for example, one of our players got hurt during the region tournament, and I just kept us cheering. I knew we couldn’t make her feel better, but we could make each other feel better enough to win the game.”
The player McCrorey was speaking of is senior pitcher Molly Moon. Moon is one of three Eastside seniors who have accepted a softball scholarship offer. Moon and Fincher are pledged to Andrew College, while Beshears is committed to Young Harris.
Because of Moon’s injury, Wood has had to call up freshman Kailey Rusk to provide relief for Beshears. But Wood said it’s that senior leadership surrounding youngsters like Rusk that give the coach confidence in putting the younger players in high-pressure situations.
“Those seniors really do serve as role models for the younger girls,” Wood said. “I keep telling them, ‘You guys are so fortunate to have so many leaders to learn from.’ One day they’ll be in that position too.”
That mixture of senior seasoning and youthful exuberance will have another opportunity to prove itself Wednesday when Eastside (21-9) hosts Oconee County (20-13) in the Class AAAA state tournament with a trip to Columbus on the line. First pitch for game one is at 5 p.m., with game two slated for 7 p.m. In the event of a split, the two teams will meet again at Eastside Thursday at 5:30 p.m. for the deciding game.
The winner will move on to meet the Chapel Hill-Cairo winner in Columbus.
The opportunity to host a Sweet Sixteen matchup is something that Wood said was an expectation for this senior-laden bunch since the last out of the 2015 season.
“I think from the get-go, and even back into the summer, we knew we wanted to win our region, and we did that,” Wood said. “It was great bringing a region championship back to the school because it put us in a better position in the postseason to host a first round game and play a fourth seed. We have a lot of pitching depth that we didn’t have last year, but I think last year’s playoff experience helped put us in a good place now.”
Wood calls Oconee County coach Bryan Eades a “well-respected coach in the softball world,” and says the Warriors will be a well-coached team with good bats. But she also knows that her own squad will have some intangibles going for it – as in the desire these seniors have to extend their time with each other as much as possible.
“No one wants this to be their last game,” she said. “They’re going to fight and battle. A lot of these girls have made the decision to not play in college, so this is it for them. I’m expecting them to hold themselves accountable and lay it on the line since you never know when your last game will be.”
Wood won’t have to work hard to make her girls buy into that sentiment, either.
“I think because we’re seniors and we are so close, we have an advantage in being able to push each other that a lot of other teams don’t have,” Beshears said.
Said McCrorey: “That’s definitely the big push for us. Knowing these could be our last games together, and we’ve been playing for so long. We’re not ready for our time together on this softball field to end.”