Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Buford Jazmin Hawkins (3), Alexus Murray (16), Alexis Baldy (7), Niki Cook (22) and Brittney Helemn (10) celebrate their 4-0 victory over Ringgold during the Class AAA GHSA State Championship softball game at the South Commons Softball Complex in Columbus on Saturday.
On the surface, Gwinnett County's two champions coming out of last weekend's State Softball Tournament at the South Commons Softball Complex in Columbus couldn't be more different.
On the one hand, there is Buford, which claimed an unprecedented sixth straight state championship by rolling to the Class AAA bracket, including a 4-0 win over Ringgold in the finals.
On the other hand, there is Archer, which won its first state championship by claiming a 7-4 win over Kennesaw Mountain in the Class AAAAAA title game.
But in reality, both teams have the feeling of breaking new ground.
For Archer (33-7), that sense of newness is obvious.
In just their fourth year as a program, the Tigers culminated a very quick rise -- one even quicker than coach Kristopher Daniels could imagine -- to capture their school's first-ever state championship.
"No," Daniels said when asked if he could've ever dreamed of winning a state title so soon after establishing the program when the school opened in the fall of 2009. "After that first year of getting pounded by older teams, if you'd have asked me, I never would've guessed this. It's been neat watching them because we've taken a different step each year."
Indeed, Archer's rise has been a step-by-step progression, going from 7-16 in its inaugural season to berths in the second-round of the Class AAAAA state playoffs each of the next two seasons before finally not only reaching the state tournament for the first time this year, but finishing it off with the title.
It was a dream come true for all the Tigers players, but especially three of the team's four seniors -- Aaliyah Williams, Taylor Harris and Taylor Ockunzzi.
That trio was there from Day 1 and went through the young program's early struggles before being bolstered by the arrival of important pieces like fellow senior Nani Cabrales, who transferred in last year after pitching for state tournament teams at Grayson during her freshman and sophomore seasons, plus talented younger players like juniors Jenna Graham and Alesha Mann, sophomore Tahra Johnson and freshman Jacqui Switzer.
"It probably won't sink in until the ride home," said Williams shortly after her 4-for-4 performance with an RBI in the title game against KMHS. "I'm so excited. I don't even know what to do now. We just won state."
One might think that Buford (32-3) might have been more blase after winning its sixth straight title.
However, there are plenty of reasons for the Wolves to treat this year's championship like their first.
For starters, there were as many as five different starters in the starting line-up this season, and even some of those that were returning starters only did so on a part-time basis last season.
"This is probably the first time since 2008 that I felt like we were starting over," said Buford coach Tony Wolfe, who has guided the Wolves to a state title in each of his six seasons as head coach and has accumulated a 190-31-2 record in that time. "That makes it really special to watch this group progress through the season and meet the challenges that came our way. It was really rewarding to ... see so many of those kids contribute and to see the joy they felt putting their stamp on the softball program.
"We tried to stay focused on those kind of things and not on the big picture of winning six in a row because so many of those girls were looking for their first."
In addition, this Buford team is almost certainly the youngest to have come home champions, with as many as seven players in the regular rotation being either freshmen or sophomores.
And many of those youngsters played prominent roles in a dominating performance by the Wolves, who swept through the tournament by outscoring four different opponents by a combined score of 22-1.
Perhaps the most dominating of those performances came from sophomore pitcher Bria Bush, who gave up an earned run in the first inning of the opening 7-1 win over Jackson, and then threw 25 consecutive shutout innings, giving up just seven hits and posting 38 strikeouts over that span.
And she was hardly alone, as other underclassmen like fellow sophomore Tessa Daniels, who was limited to just 16 starts this season due to injury, but had a huge tournament by going 7-for-13 with eight RBIs, and junior Niki Cook, who was an astounding 11-for-16 with five runs scored and six stolen bases for the weekend, stepped up and made major contributions to the Buford cause.
"We're a pretty young team, but we never stopped believing in ourselves as a team," said Bush, who finished the season 22-2 with a 0.99 ERA with 176 strikeouts in 142 innings. "We knew if we could come together and play as a team, we could pull through."
Another factor that gave Buford a sense of newness about this year's title comes from the fact that it came in a new classification.
After five years of dominating Class AA, the Wolves moved up a classification, and still rolled through four entirely new opponents to give Buford it's first state title in Class AAA.
"During the season, we saw a few teams that we used to see while playing in (Class) AA," Wolfe said. "But it seems like in the playoffs, we saw a lot of the longtime AAA schools. We're proud of being able to win it at the higher level. It's the first (state championship) for our school at that level. We hope it's the first of many, but it's kind of neat being first one."
-- Staff correspondent Joseph Myers contributed to this report