Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Peachtree Ridge seniors Sam Pierannunzi (00), Quinn Hill (15), Sarah Walker (12), and Kayla Jones (14) prepare for the first round of the high school softball Class AAAAAA State Playoffs as they face South Forsyth on Wednesday.
SUWANEE -- When the current senior class of the Peachtree Ridge softball team came in as freshmen four years ago, it did so on the heels of the most successful era in the program's brief history that saw the Lions make the Class AAAAA state final four three straight seasons.
While there was a lot to live up to, coach Bubba Wilson and his staff went out of their way to shelter that class from feeling the pressure to meet high expectations before it was ready.
Now seniors, the four remaining members of that class -- outfielders Sam Pierannunzi and Kayla Jones and pitchers Sarah Walker and Quinn Hill -- appear ready to lead the way as Peachtree Ridge begins its quest to return to the state tournament in Columbus for the first time since those glory days in the mid-2000s.
All four have played a vital role as the Lions (22-5) have rolled up a No. 6 state ranking in Class AAAAAA, the regular season Region 7-AAAAAA championship and a region playoff runner-up finish as they head into the first round of the state playoffs today against South Forsyth.
"This group's come in and kind of grown into this role a little bit," Wilson said about his senior quartet. "The time was just right for them. They were ready to take on the leadership that they have. They've just come a long way. They've grown with a little more selflessness and they've taken a little more accountability. So, it's refreshing."
It's not like Peachtree Ridge has hit hard times during this senior class' career, with the Lions having gone 49-42 and qualified for the state playoffs twice over the last three seasons.
Still, there was never a sense among each member of the class to move any faster than their own pace to brining the program back to prominence.
"Coming in as freshmen, (Assistant coach Tedd) Sims told us a story about how ... (the Oakland Athletics) had a bunch of rookies who didn't know whether they were supposed to win or lose games," said Pierannunzi, the Lions' leadoff hitter and one of their offensive leaders with a .465 average, eight home runs and 24 stolen bases this season. "So, as freshmen, we didn't really understand this school's history, as far as Columbus goes. So, we were all pretty excited just to make it the playoffs."
But as the seniors have grown, the bar has steadily been raised, and with time running out on their careers, their sense of urgency has definitely increased.
That increased sense of urgency has blended with the influx of some younger talent and the seniors' experience to create an atmosphere of togetherness that has exceeded anything the seniors have seen throughout their careers.
"Of all the years I've been here, this is the best chemistry we've ever had," said Jones, who is hitting .375 with four homers and six doubles this season. "I think that gives us confidence. A lot of us have been playing (together) for a long time -- since we were little. That does help when we come into games because we know how (everyone plays) and we know (our) mindset in games."
Hill agrees, and sees the increased closeness of the team as a big reason that the Lions have made such a big jump in wins and region seeding this season.
"I think this year, it's more a team thing than being selfish and doing it for yourself," said Hill, who is 12-3 with a 3.22 ERA in the circle this season. "We all want the same thing. All of our goals are the same. We're doing it for the team, not just for ourselves."
Each of the four seniors brings a different quality of leadership to the table.
But Wilson points out that they have one thing in common that makes each someone for the younger players to look up to -- the ability to lead by example.
Pierannanzi and Jones have done so not only at the plate, but in the field and on the bases, while Hill and Walker (10-2, 2.29 ERA) have combined to give Peachtree Ridge quality pitching each time out.
"Sam and Sara are little more vocal than Kayla and Quinn," Wilson noted. (But) their actions speak a little bit more than their words sometimes, and I don't think you can really lead if you're not having success on the field. You can, but it's a whole different dimension when you're out there doing it than where you're just talking about it.
"It's a good balance. The timing for them to be seniors and step up and do what they've done is pretty nice, and pretty special. We're going to miss them (next year), I know that."
Those leadership skills will be put to the test beginning with today's playoff opener, and all four seniors know they will need to help keep the Lions focused if they are to fulfill their ultimate goal of returning to Columbus with a chance at a state title.
And Walker points out that the best thing about this group of seniors is that they know they can rely on each other to play their individual role.
"We all hold each other accountable," Walker said. "If I can't pick up someone else, I know I've got three other seniors who will pick them up. Everybody holds each other accountable."
Most of all, the seniors know they must hold themselves accountable in an elimination situation from here on out.
That means keeping momentum once they get it, a lesson they learned in last week's region playoffs, when the Lions grabbed the first game of the best-of-three series with North Gwinnett, only to see the Bulldogs rally to take the next two games and the region title.
It's a lesson Pierannunzi says the Lions have taken to heart, and intend to remember beginning this afternoon.
"As far as the two out of three series goes, as we saw against North Gwinnett, it can either be your best friend or your worst enemy," Pierannunzi said. "If you have the momentum after that first game, then you have the power. But if you can't get it together, a loss (in Game 2) puts you in a bad situation because it (drains) all the momentum to the other team. We just have to go out there with the mindset to win every game and don't give them an opportunity to win."