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Speedy Tech-bound senior sparks Buford attack

Photo by Brandon Brigman

Photo by Brandon Brigman

A pretty good track runner in the 100- and 200-meter dash, Chelsie Thomas is known for her quick starts, though as the distances get longer, she gets reeled in some by her opponents with longer strides.

That's one of the issues with being 5-foot-3.

But longer runs aren't necessary in fastpitch softball, a sport that rewards exceptionally quick players with the burst to cover short distances in lightning-fast times. The Buford senior certainly fits that prototypical quick softball player, racing from home to first base in anywhere from 2.5 to 2.7 seconds.

"What makes Chelsie so amazing is she's one of those first-step fast people," Buford head coach Tony Wolfe said of the Georgia Tech-bound third baseman. "Her burst is amazing. She's very fast home to first. She can absolutely fly in the short distance. She just has great instincts for running bases. If the ball gets away, she always makes the right decision. And of course with her speed, she can get away with more than most kids on the base paths."

Thomas' speed has been a constant catalyst for the Buford program in its current run of three straight state titles. Her ability to get on base gives a boost in itself, but once there she creates major problems for the Wolves' opponents.

She is 46-for-47 on stolen bases the past two seasons, stealing 27 of those as a junior. She also hit .404 and scored a team-high 37 runs.

"Probably my favorite part of softball is the baserunning," Thomas said. "I love to steal bases and I love to put pressure on the defense. That's what my role is."

It's a role that may not have materialized if she hadn't made a tough decision following her ninth-grade season. A right-handed hitter, she posted a .380 batting average with the Wolves, but was encouraged by her travel team coaches to become a left-handed slap hitter.

The process wasn't fun at first. While the slapping and running came relatively easy, the challenge was hitting anything with power from the left side -- a skill she admittedly is still working on.

"(The coaches) said because of your speed, you need to flip (to the left-handed side)," said Thomas, who also maintains a 3.8 GPA. "I tried it before but I didn't like it because I didn't think I'd be good at it. They kind of forced me to do it because they knew I'd be good at it and it worked out pretty well."

Well enough that Thomas has a chance to play at Georgia Tech with fellow Buford senior Karly Fullem and former travel teammates Alysha Rudnik (of Buford) and Hayley Downs (of Grayson). She was recruited as a second baseman with a possible move to the outfield, where she plays on her East Cobb Bullets team.

Wolfe can't imagine playing Thomas anywhere but third base, the position she's locked down with a .968 fielding percentage for the three-time defending state champs.

"Defensively, and Georgia Tech doesn't agree with me on this, I think she's one of the best third basemen in the game," Wolfe said. "Her quickness, she pretty much denies all of the small game. With her at third, she pretty much takes away all of the bunting and all of the slapping. She's that good. She's only made five errors the past two years. Georgia Tech will talk about arm strength, but she's got as quick a release as I've ever seen."

Quick is probably the word that fits Thomas' skill level best. It's easily the one her coach uses most often to describe her on the softball field.

And it's been a major part of Buford's postseason success of late.

"In the big games, against top-level pitching, she is really special," Wolfe said. "Her ability to create an inning all by herself is incredible. If she gets on base, she'll be on second base within the next pitch or two. In a close game, that can be a big difference."

Wolfe is counting on more of the same from his speedster this season. She is a small part of a veteran Buford team with hopes of a fourth straight state championship, a feat accomplished just once before in Georgia high school fastpitch softball.

"That would be awesome (to win four in a row)," Thomas said. "To be one of the few teams to win it four years straight would be amazing."