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ENCORE PERFORMANCE: Eastside softball readying for a run at a return trip to Columbus
Heather Wood
Eastside softball coach Heather Wood, left, confers with assistant Beth Bowman during the opening day of the Eagles' softball summer camp. Wood said she's noticed an uptick in interest of her program after last year's Columbus state tournament run. - photo by Gabriel Stovall

COVINGTON, Ga. — One thing that’s definitely not lost on Eastside softball coach Heather Wood is the consequences of success her team will undoubtedly face as during the 2018 season.

The Lady Eagles concluded the 2017 campaign with a third straight region championship and a thrilling, if unexpected, ride to Columbus for the Class AAAA state tournament, with a bunch of sophomores and juniors carrying the load along with lone senior McKenzie Walker. 

Now, with all but Walker returning, the addition of Power Five college prospects Lauren Burnett — a Georgia commit — and Natalie Ray coming in as freshmen, a tantalizing one-two punch in the pitching circle with college-committed arms in junior Kailey Rusk (Kennesaw State) and senior Dani Fairey (Emmanuel College) and the experience and bat strength of a player like junior catcher Alysee Dobbs, it could be easy to get swept up into the notion that Eastside is a lock for another region crown and Columbus berth. 

But Wood knows better. 

Kailey Rusk
Junior Kailey Rusk showed herself a force to be reckoned with in the pitching circle this season, particularly during the state tournament. - photo by Gabriel Stovall

“We’ll drill on this in practice, and they’ll see pretty quickly that it’s not going to be easy,” Wood said. “You’re never going to be in a place where anything is handed to us, and you’re not just gonna come in and dominate everybody. We want to keep them humble during the season with the teams we play, knowing that it will help us down the road when we have the opportunity to advance in the postseason.” 

Look no further than Eastside’s schedule to find those regular season reminders of humility. 

Included in Eastside’s schedule: Defending Class AAAAA state champion Locust Grove which finished 31-5 overall, 15-1 in Region 4-AAAAA and was considered the No. 8 team in Georgia regardless of classification and the 10th ranked high school squad in the country, according to MaxPreps. 

The Eagles will also contend with an always-solid Social Circle squad that was a 2017 state playoffs team, Loganville and Walnut Grove teams that made Class AAAAA Elite Eight runs in Columbus — Loganville narrowly lost to that state title-winning Locust Grove bunch — and the addition of Hampton into Region 4-AAAA. 

The Lady Hornets boast a player in Skylar Trahan who is a bonafide Power Five prospect. And Woodward Academy is always a region foe to be reckoned with. An added wrinkle to the scheduling is the fact that Region 4-AAAA teams will only play each other once in the coming season, adding more cruciality to each region contest.

Senior Dani Fairey will combine with Rusk to provide to give Eastside a very formidable 1-2 punch at pitcher in the coming season. - photo by Gabriel Stovall

“This is, I think, the toughest schedule we’ve had since I’ve been coaching,” Wood said. “It’s extremely tough, and there will be times when it’s going to make us look at what we are as a team and how we’ll need to get better.” 

Wood won’t shy away from the benefits of her team’s success, though. As Eastside opened its annual softball camp Monday, Wood called the camp one of those instances that let her know there was an uptick in intrigue about her program. 

“Anytime you have success or a successful season like we did, it brings a lot of attention to the program,” she said. “It makes the younger girls in the community eager to be involved with what we do.” 

Junior catcher Alysee Dobbs will be one of many returning leaders for a talented Eastside squad in 2018. - photo by Gabriel Stovall

Wood said last week’s camp gave her and her coaches a chance to get a glimpse at the emerging talent Newton County has to offer. It also is the last offseason gathering the team will share together before preparations begin at the end of the month for the 2018 season opener against Jackson on August 7. 

“With where we are and where we’ve been, you still have to take one game and one situation at a time, and concentrate on getting better each week,” Wood said. “Like I said before, we’re not just going to come in and walk through this schedule. But it’s really not about record, except for the region, but playing the caliber of teams that get you ready. 

“Getting to Columbus is not easy. Playing in Columbus isn’t easy. Anything can happen in a season, and we have to prepare the girls for that.”