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STATE SOFTBALL: Eastside falls to No. 1 NW Whitfield in Columbus, awaits chance at redemption Friday
Sophomore pitcher Kailey Rusk recorded seven strikeouts in a losing effort Thursday night against NW Whitfield in the Class AAAA state tournament in Columbus. - photo by Gabriel Stovall

COLUMBUS, Ga. — Not taking anything away from No. 1 Northwest Whitfield, but Eastside softball coach, Heather Wood would probably like that one back. 

Eastside fell 8-0 in five innings to the top-ranked team in Class AAAA in its first game in the Columbus version of the GHSA state playoffs Thursday evening. But it wasn’t a woodshed-style beatdown as the score might indicate. 

In fact, Wood felt before, during and after the game, that her girls could’ve — and should’ve — played the Bruins much better. 

“Fundamentally on defense, I was disappointed in how we came out,” Wood said. “I think if we make some of those routine plays in the beginning, the tone of the game is just completely different.” 

Those routine plays Wood was referring to happened in the first two innings to offset a strong start in the pitching circle for sophomore Kailey Rusk. 

In the top of the first, after Rusk had struck out two consecutive batters, Whitfield’s Sydney Horne hit what appeared to be a routine ground ball toward third base. Eastside third baseman, Jordan Rittenbacher bobbled the ball while trying to make a throw to first, and the error gave Horne a base hit single. 

On the next play, Payton Tuder knocked a RBI single that brought in Whitfield’s first run, making the score 1-0 going into the bottom half of the first. 

After Eastside failed to produce any sustainable offense in the bottom of the frame, Whitfield came back in the second to benefit from another fielding error. 

After another Rusk strikeout and a single by pitcher, Anna Grace Rann, Molly Middleton placed a soft bunt down the third base line, again to Rittenbacher who mishandled the ball, turning what should’ve been an out into a single. 

Wood said the mistakes were uncharacteristic of her usually steady third baseman. 

“She’s made those plays all season, and even in practice,” Wood said. “I think it may have just been some of our nerves that contributed to that.

On the very next play, Brittany Ogle bunted also, and two Eastside infielders couldn’t seem to find the right approach angle to field the ball in a timely manner, allowing another single that loaded the bases for Whitfield.

From there, Rusk walked in a run, KayLeigh Fitzgerald hit a sac fly that brought in another, Horne knocked a RBI single that squeezed through the gap between third base and short and Henley Henderson’s single brought in two more to cap a five-run second inning that broke the game open. 

Wood said those early miscues sort of put her team in a funk that it couldn’t recover from. 

“The confidence it brings when you make those plays and get out of innings, it’s game changing,” Wood said. “But we just never could do that. “I think we had some good at-bats, but just could never get it going. But fundamentally, they did what they’re supposed to do. I just wish we could’ve given (Whitfield) a better game because I knew we had it in us to do so.” 

Wood believes that big stage jitters got the best of her team from beginning to end, which is something that didn’t particularly surprise her, given the youth of her team. 

“It’s just a different environment for them,” she said. “From the warmups to just everything. We’ve played at home for the past month for big games, so this was different. I expected some nerves the first inning or two, but we just never recovered from it, and it hurt us in the end.” 

The Lady Bruins added two more runs in the top of the third to provide the final score. 

With the loss, the Eagles fall into the loser’s bracket where it will have to work its way out through a litany of games if they continue to advance. Eastside will play the loser of Stephens County vs. Northside-Columbus Friday at Noon, and Wood said she’s hoping her squad learns a quick less on in Game 2 of their Columbus experience.

“We could’ve competed against Whitfield with this group,” Wood said. “That’s why I’m disappointed. But I’m telling our girls to come out tomorrow with focus. I’m trying to make them understand the amount of focus and energy it takes to win these games. You can’t have those mishaps and recover. Details are important, so I hope tomorrow we come out with more of a sense of urgency and get the win.”