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Back in playoff form, Grayson headed to Columbus

LOGANVILLE - In can be said that 2008 was a rebuilding year in every sense of the word for the Grayson softball program.

The graduation of a large senior class and several key injuries played a major role in the Rams' run of six straight postseason appearances ending with a 7-18 campaign.

But this year they have a new coach in Jennifer Edwards, several key returning players - particularly two-time Daily Post all-county selection and Georgia Tech commitment Hayley Downs - and a fresh, more positive outlook.

Those elements have the Rams (21-11) back in the playoffs and headed to the Class AAAAA state tournament in Columbus, where they open up play Thursday against Chapel Hill at the South Commons Softball Complex.

"I think we could've done better than we did (last year) if we had higher expectations," Downs said. "But this year, we came into it knowing that it was going to be a different year. That's what our coaches emphasized and we did it.

"We said from the beginning, 'We're not going to have a repeat of last year ever again.' We've kind of wiped last year out of our minds and started from scratch again and became the team that we were before."

One of the biggest differences in Grayson's fortunes this year is simply having Downs back in the lineup.

She missed much of last season after suffering a fractured hand when she was hit by a pitch in the second game of the season.

Downs returned healthy and leads the Rams with a .425 batting average, but she has hardly been solely responsible for Grayson's turnaround.

Several players who were forced into varsity action for the first time last season came back with valuable experience.

And the addition of several talented youngsters, such as freshmen Taylor Denton and Kanani Cabrales, has made for a winning combination.

Still, it's taken a while for the Rams to find that exact winning combination.

Though they went a solid 15-8 in the regular season, Edwards said it wasn't until a third-place finish in the Region 8-AAAAA tournament that the team really began to find its identity.

That finish served as a springboard to series wins over Harrison and Duluth in the sectional playoffs, earning Grayson its first trip to Columbus since 2007.

"Our expectations were high," said Edwards, who was an assistant coach for the Rams last year before taking over the head coaching reins this season. "We told them, 'If you work hard and can do the little things right, good things will happen.'

"I think finally around midseason, we started to come around ... and about the region tournament, we started hitting our stride and doing the little things right."

Those little things could play a big part in just how long Grayson's stay in Columbus lasts.

Despite being away from Columbus just one year, only two players - Downs and junior Rachel McElroy - played during the Rams' run through the 2007 state tournament.

Those two, along with five other now-seniors who were with the team, know they will be looked upon for guidance and leadership as they battle for the program's third state championship since the school opened in 2000.

With a field that includes the state's top four teams - Collins Hill (29-3), Chapel Hill (35-1), Houston County (28-4) and Greenbrier (29-8) - the Rams will come in as somewhat of an underdog.

But that's OK with them.

"I think me and Hayley just knowing what's going on will help us be leaders," McElroy said. "I definitely think we're an underdog going in, but people shouldn't take us lightly."