The six Gwinnett County high school softball teams still playing have at least one thing in common — aside from preparing for their classification’s state tournament.
It is how they qualified for the tournament, which begins Thursday at the South Commons Softball Complex in Columbus.
Columbus Softball Complex
5:30 p.m. Brookwood vs. Harrison
5:30 p.m. Collins Hill vs. Newnan
5:30 p.m. Grayson vs. Lowndes
Noon Buford vs. Jeff Davis
Noon GAC vs. Dodge County
Noon Providence Christian vs. Irwin County
All six teams feature strong pitching and defense, but all of them have brought out the big bats during their first two rounds of the state playoffs.
The lowest run total any of the remaining local teams have scored in any single postseason game is four, and each team is averaging at least 7.6 runs per game during the playoffs.
At least two of the coaches of the remaining teams believe the postseason upturn in offense is part of a seasonlong trend triggered by an offseason rules change.
“I think the trend has to do with the pitching distance moving from 40 to 43 feet,” said Buford coach Tony Wolfe, whose top-ranked Wolves (28-4) have averaged nine runs in four playoff games this fall, and begin their quest for a fourth straight Class AA state championship Thursday at noon against Jeff Davis. “Three feet is a lot of space. At first, I didn’t think it would make much of a difference because most (players) play 43 feet in summer travel ball. But I think some of the power pitchers are having a little tougher time (adjusting), not that they’re doing that bad.
“Plus, hitting is also a little streaky, and it can be contagious. ... Offensively, we’ve played really well dating back to the last day of the Brookwood Tournament (from Sept. 17-18). And toward the end of the season, we’ve gotten everyone (hitting) at a high level.”
Buford is hitting the ball well throughout the lineup. Eight players in the batting order are hitting at least .320 for the season, including four regulars — Melissa Dickie (.467), Chelsie Thomas (.441), Lexi Overstreet (.406) and Karly Fullem (.400) — all hitting over .400.
And while 71 of Buford’s 266 hits have gone for extra bases, the Wolves have also been adept at small ball, with only 98 strikeouts in 915 team plate appearances, plus 49 sacrifice bunts.
But they are not alone in that respect.
Gwinnett’s five other Columbus-bound teams — defending state champion Collins Hill, Brookwood and Grayson in Class AAAAA, Greater Atlanta Christian in AA and Providence Christian in A — are swinging consistent bats lately, as well as finding many different ways to score runs.
Class AAAAA No. 1 Collins Hill (29-2-1) is another prime example of a batting order that can beat teams in varied ways.
The Eagles have plenty of contact and speed hitters capable of getting on base at the top and bottom of the order, with plenty of pop in the middle to drive those baserunners in.
“That’s the best thing about our team. It’s not all just one or two girls,” said Collins Hill coach Billy Dooley, whose Eagles begin their title defense Thursday at 5:30 p.m. against Newnan. “(McKenzie) Halstead leads us with 36 RBIs, and we have two others (Chelsea Littlejohn and Brianna Cason) with at least 20. And we’ve got (Christina) Parham and (Aerika) Miles at the top of the order and (Brittany) Roley at the bottom of the lineup is like having another leadoff hitter. And the others behind them have done a good job of driving them home.”
While hitting has been a big key, all six remaining Gwinnett teams have also gotten strong pitching and been solid, for the most part, in the field.
And Dooley believes those facets of the game will still be big keys to success for each team in Columbus.
“Pitching and defense are going to be more important than ever,” Dooley acknowledges. “Teams are hitting more and scoring more runs. That’s why doing the little things are even more important.”