COLUMBUS - As the two top-ranked teams in Class AA, it came as no surprise the Greater Atlanta Christian and Buford each won its first two games at the Class AA state softball tournament Thursday at South Commons Softball Complex.
However, the No. 1 Spartans and second-ranked Wolves advanced to set up their showdown with each other in tonight's 7 p.m. winner's bracket final in decidedly different ways.
Led by pitcher Jessica Coan, GAC overwhelmed its two opponents, beating Screven County 7-0 and No. 6 Berrien County 8-0.
Meanwhile, Buford was forced to come up clutch in both its games, getting a sixth-inning home run from Ashley Razey to edge
No. 5 Savannah Christian 3-2 in the opener before Melissa Higginbotham's RBI triple in the sixth lifted the Wolves past Rutland 1-0 in the nightcap.
Coan (28-0) was the main story for GAC (36-1-1), throwing a pair of shutouts, giving up just six hits in 14 innings and striking out 17 in each of her wins, including fanning 12 of the first 13 batters she faced against Berrien County.
The senior also pounded out a combined five hits at the plate, including a double, her first homer of the season and four RBIs on the day.
"We're on a mission to leave it all on the field here and win it with class," Coan said. "I came out (Thursday afternoon) and didn't pitch as well as I'd hoped. I came out (in the second) game and concentrated on making my pitches work and making them move."
Coan's teammates also packed plenty of punch by erupting for 22 hits and 15 runs, including five hits and four RBIs by Chaney Means, plus a huge day for Alex McDavid, who went 3-for-4 with an RBI in each game, including a pair of doubles in the nightcap.
"Offense has been the key we've been missing (in back-to-back state runner-up finishes the last two years)," GAC coach Judy Tenney said. "We've had dominant pitching, but our offense couldn't produce. To see this kind of output (Thursday) is exciting."
While the Spartans were Class AA's juggernaut, Buford (31-6-1) was the classification's clutch team of the day.
Razey's sacrifice fly combined with Alysha Rudnik's RBI single to pull the Wolves even with Savannah Christian in the fourth inning of their opener.
Razey then blasted her ninth homer of the season in the sixth inning to push Buford in front, and Higginbotham (17-3) was able to close out the win, giving up just four hits and two earned runs and striking out four for the complete-game win.
In the nightcap, the Wolves got a three-hit shutout from freshman Kelly Fullem (6-2), who added eight strikeouts.
They got all the offense they needed in the sixth when Nicole Bell led off with a single, was sacrificed to second by Brandi Hellemn and came home on Higginbotham's triple.
"We've had a lot of close games," Buford coach Tony Wolfe said. "In (the AA North sectional in) Rome, we came from behind in three games. Then we had these two close ones. We're an experienced team. I'd rather win 8-0, but I like our chances if we have to play a close game."
The victories for GAC and Buford sets up Round 5 for the two teams, with the Spartans winning three of the previous four, though the Wolved handed them their only loss of the season in the first meeting Sept. 22.
"It's interesting that it comes down to us two," Wolfe said. "Coan didn't pitch that first game. The three times she did, we lost 4-2, 3-0 and 1-0.
"You can't be picky as to who you play (in the winner's bracket), but this is what we wanted to do - come down here and keep winning."