After close call last year, North reaches Eite Eight

Last year the North Gwinnett Bulldogs were so close to Columbus.

One run, one tiny run, was all that separated them from a spot in the Class AAAAA Elite Eight.

Instead they watched from the sidelines as the Roswell Hornets celebrated their extra-inning victory over North in the final fastpitch softball game of the 2004 North Sectional.

This year, the Bulldogs made sure they were the ones that were celebrating at the end.

Behind a strong pitching performance from sophomore back-up Mary Beth O'Rouke, North earned its first Elite Eight appearance since 1995 with a 4-2 win over Grayson.

"We knew we were one game away last year, one inning really," North head coach Mike Cavey said. "We knew that we were close and we wanted to get past that one inning and take it further and take it down to Columbus."

They did just that, and now they are one of eight teams in the state left standing.

The Bulldogs open up the state tournament with a matchup against No. 2 Union Grove, which features star pitcher Terese Gober.

North has a star pitcher of its own in Jessica Batten (15-4-2, 0.58 ERA), and the senior is expected to start Thursday's contest after she missed the final game of the sectionals with an injured back.

The two teams have already met once this season, in the Brookwood tournament, where the Bulldogs fell 2-0.

"The good thing is we've seen them before," Cavey said. "We've seen Terese Gober, so we know what we have to look for. They didn't see Batten. So we feel pretty good about pitching Batten."

Since it's the first state tournament berth for the North softball team in 10 years, it would be understood if the players already felt satisfied with their season.

After all, they've already reached the goal they set at the start of the year, so everything else is just gravy, right?

Well, not quite.

"We're looking forward to the trip," Cavey said. "But this is a softball trip, not a vacation. We've worked hard to get here, and I told them, 'Don't get satisfied in just getting down there.'

"Because we're going down there to win."

And Cavey's team appears to have just as good a shot as anyone.

"When you're down to the final eight, it's all even now," he said. "You have the same opportunity as the next person. It's really just a matter of who can get those first couple of wins first."

If the Bulldogs (27-9-2) win one more game this season, they break the school record for victories in a season.