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PREP SOFTBALL: Alcovy, Eastside, Newton will play pivotal early-season region games Thursday
Newton head softball coach Virginia Tucker-Smith works on hitting with a player during a recent practice. Tucker-Smith has guided her Lady Rams to four straight impressive wins ahead of Thursday night's matchup with undefeated Grayson. - photo by Gabriel Stovall

It’s not just football that’s taking center stage in the area on Thursday night. 

All three Newton County schools will be hosting potentially pivotal, early-season, region softball matchups tonight that could give each winner some momentum towards securing that all-important top four spot in the region standings needed for a state tournament berth. 

Here’s a peak at what to expect tonight. 

Heritage-Conyers (5-4 overall, 4-0 in Region 3-AAAAAA) at Alcovy (3-3, 1-1): Just six games into the 2018 season, the Alcovy Tigers are already one win away from matching last year’s win total. The Lady Tigers look like a more cohesive bunch, and are powered by the presence of seniors Lanie Knight, Abby Trantham, Corley Thacker and Courtney Freeman. After falling to Newton on August 14, Alcovy went on the road and split a pair with Region 3-AAAAAA foe Lakeside-Evans, winning the first game 11-6 in eight innings while losing the second 14-6.

Coach Miranda Lamb’s bunch will, no doubt, be anxious to get back out on the field after Monday’s region double-header was rained out. They’ll get their chance tonight when they host Heritage with first pitch slated for 5:30 p.m. The Lady Patriots have already played four region contests, and are the only squad still with an unblemished region record. For Heritage, senior Kassidy Slaton has been pacing Heritage’s offense with her .440 average and two home runs through her first eight games. 

Sophomore Kennedy Stephens and freshman Cameron Hodges are also batting north of .400 in the early goings, while senior pitcher Faith Hagans recorded 38 strikeouts in her first six appearances in the circle. 

For Alcovy, it’s been Knight (.652), junior Gwyn Lee (.524) and Thacker (.500) who have been doing what coach Lamb was hoping the Tigers could do better than last year — hit the ball and regularly putting it in play. 

Freshman Lexie McDonald has also been getting it done at the plate (.421 average) and in the circle, a 2-1 record and 10 strikeouts in her three appearances. Junior McKenzie Rodgers has also been strong for the Tigers in the early goings. 

An Alcovy win Thursday night could provide some early pole position for the region race. 

Woodward Academy (0-11, 0-1 in Region 4-AAAA) at Eastside (4-3, 1-0): Despite last season’s talent and this year’s returning cast, Eastside has taken a few lumps in the early part of the season, particularly in non-region play. The most recent being a 9-1 loss at Loganville Tuesday. But coach Heather Wood isn’t panicking. In fact, she was hoping the gauntlet non-region slate would get her team ready for another region and postseason run. 

Eastside is already one-up in region play after blasting Henry County 18-0 through three innings in the team’s region opener last week. Tonight, they’ll welcome Woodward Academy which hasn’t won a game — region or otherwise — yet this season, and already has as many losses (11) as it had region wins last year. 

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

Eastside’s gotten strong pitching performances from junior Kailey Rusk and senior Dani Fairey, and having junior catcher Alysee Dobbs back in the lineup after injury should only be a positive. 

Still, though the region race looks like it’ll come down to Hampton and Eastside — which won’t face each other until September 11 — The Eagles can’t afford to overlook the Lady War Eagles. 

Region matchups will mean a bit more this season, as each team will only play one game against each other.

Grayson (5-0, 1-0 in Region 8-AAAAAAA) at Newton (4-2, 1-0): When Newton sophomore Tyliyah Hardeman was asked which teams she was most looking forward to playing, the answer came quick and sure. 

“Grayson and Archer,” Hardeman said. Then she gave an addendum to that comment that displayed the kind of confidence that seems to be running rampant through the entire Newton squad right now. 

“We’re coming for their heads,” she said. 

As Grayson comes to town Thursday night for a Region 8-AAAAAAA showdown scheduled for a 5:55 p.m. first pitch, Newton will get the chance to see how well it can back up that verbal confidence in the first of two games between the two schools that will give the winner some early-season control of the region. Grayson comes in as an undefeated, top-10 ranked opponent, while the Lady Rams, winners of four straight, are seen as a slightly surprising upstart under coach Virginia Tucker-Smith in her first year back in the dugout as coach.

After defeating Class AAAA No. 7 Eastside a couple of weekends ago, and beating its other in-county rival Alcovy several days after, Newton most recently flexed its muscles by beating Stephenson 11-4 last Thursday and run-ruling South Gwinnett 17-0 in its region opener Tuesday. 

Meanwhile, only two of Grayson’s five wins have been decided by more than one run, although its 8-4 win over an 8-1 Mountain View team and one-run squeakers against Walnut Grove, Northside and Loganville have been impressive. 

Newton’s three freshman, Hayden Pearson, Chasidah Parker and Katlyn Neely have joined established players like Allyriah Russell, Aulara Edwards, Mariah Williams and Hardeman to provide a lineup that, at least early on, seems to be void of many glaring weak spots. 

If Newton gets past Grayson tonight for its fifth straight win, getting win No. 6 won’t be much easier, as the Lady Rams’ next game will be Tuesday at Archer (3-2, 1-0).