COLUMBUS, Ga. — Eastside softball’s appearance, not only in the Class AAAA state tournament, but in the Elite Eight in Columbus, was a pleasant surprise for coach Heather Wood.
Wood stated several times before the season and a few times during the early part of the season that her expectations for this team was more about learning than quickly sprouting. But it appears Eastside did both. The Eagles’ season came to an end in Columbus after losing two games against two seasoned Class AAAA programs in top-ranked NW Whitfield and Stephens County. But you don’t always have to have wins in order to glean major takeaways from this environment.
In “Five Things” style, here are a few of the biggest impressions Columbus left on me:
1. The Columbus atmosphere proves softball’s popularity. As I’ve watched college softball over the years, it’s always intrigued me when the top 25 rankings come out how many of the powerhouse softball programs are also big time college football schools. The parallels, I don’t believe, are a coincidence. Softball has become to girls and women’s sports what, I believe, football is to men’s sports, and the atmosphere in Columbus seems to prove that even on the high school level. Aside from the eight teams from each of the seven classifications that populated the eight fields at Columbus’ South Commons Softball Complex, the area was teeming with college softball scouts and coaches from smaller, local programs, to schools like Georgia Tech, UGA and Auburn. You could tell the experience was an eye-opener for the Eagles’ players.
2. Eastside’s got at least one potential big time prospect in the making. Speaking of college coaches making their presence known, I saw at least one chatting a bit with sophomore pitcher Kaily Rusk, while I overheard several others remarking on some of the pitches she threw. Rusk recorded 13 strikeouts through the two games in Columbus — this coming on the heels of her lights-out 12-strikeout performance against Spalding in the Sweet 16 matchup. She’s shown impressive velocity on her pitches as well as decent movement and placement. As she continues to grow, don’t be shocked to see some of those scouts making trips to Covington to catch her in her junior season.
3. First-time nerves and jitters are real. This wasn’t Eastside softball’s first time in Columbus. The Lady Eagles were last there in 2010, and the program actually won back-to-back state championships during the 1998-99 seasons. But it was the first time any of these girls have been, and you could tell. Ranking aside, NW Whitfield wasn’t so impressive that an Eastside team playing at its best couldn’t compete. Actually, Stephens County had the more impressive bats. Coach Wood acknowledge the failures to avoid some early mistakes against Whitfield probably set the tone for their entire time there.
4. Alysee Dobbs could grow into an all-state type talent at catcher. Only a sophomore, Dobbs shows leadership skills beyond her years. She’s exceedingly knowledgable about the game and has shown consistent ability to think and react quickly. Her pop-up time and reflexes are superb, and she has even had some very solid moments at the plate. Behind the plate, she kind of reminds me of former Eastside baseball star, Austin Holloway. I know the games of baseball and softball are not identical. But both of those players seem to possess some of the same kind of skill sets.
5. Let’s go ahead and say it: State champion contender. It’s not an exaggeration. With the kind of talent Eastside has coming back for the next two years, the Lady Eagles will be more than solid. Wood said she wants to work on shoring up some holes in the one through nine, and there are some young players who will be freshman and sophomores next year who will probably be able to contribute immediately. Rusk and Fairey will likely have no issues holding down the pitching circle. If Eastside can find a little more bat power and maybe a step or two more quickness defensively, this team is definitely a legit Columbus threat, and then some.