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Dacula's Emily Digby throws to first base during a 2021 game against Shiloh.

Dacula’s softball players found out last Friday that this season would be their last with Kelli Poff as head coach. Poff was approved last week as the first athletic director at Seckinger, a new Gwinnett high school opening in 2022.

Delivering that news wasn't a simple conversation.

“It was awful,” Poff said of having to tell her players about the Seckinger opportunity. “It was super emotional for all of us. By the end, we were all laughing and smiling. That’s just who we are as a program.”

Now those players get a chance to send their coach out on top.

Dacula is one of eight Class AAAAAA teams headed to Columbus this week to compete for the state championship. The Region 8-AAAAAA champion Falcons begin play Thursday at 8 p.m. against Sequoyah, with the winner advancing to an 11 a.m. winner’s bracket game Friday against the Pope-River Ridge winner.

The final stage of the softball season figures to be memorable for Poff, who played on Dacula’s first fastpitch team to reach the rounds in Columbus in 1999. The Falcons finished fourth in the state that season. It also will be special to her players, whether they have reached Columbus in the past or not.

“It’s always cool for every team (to get to Columbus) because every team’s different,” Poff said. “Our junior class, 10 juniors, they were freshmen when we got third at state. A lot of them that were there, only three of them were starters at that point, so it’s cool for them to go back and see it in a different way because they’re all in such huge roles. And it’s always cool for kids going there for the first time. It’s also pretty full circle for me, the culmination of my coaching career and I was there as a player for (former Dacula coach Tracy) Keefer in 1999 the first time Dacula had been there. So it will be full circle to go back one last time.”

Poff brings a pretty good team to Columbus, too.

Dacula (21-5) is perfect in the state playoffs with sweeps of Kennesaw Mountain (8-6, 3-2) and Richmond Hill (6-5, 7-1). Its regular-season resumé features a 2-1 record against region rival and No. 1-ranked Buford, whose only two losses this season are to Dacula.

Senior Maia Mumpfield, a recent Georgia State commitment, continues to bring pop to the Falcons’ lineup with her left-handed bat, but her pitching in the circle — a big void for the team entering this season — has been just as pivotal to the success.

“I’m so happy for her,” Poff said of Mumpfield. “She stepped into the role at pitcher because we had to have her and she’s so selfless. She said she would do the best she can for us.”

While Mumpfield is an offensive force, opponents also fear junior slugger Emily Digby, a Georgia Bulldogs commit.

“When (Digby) was a freshman, she started at center field in Columbus because we had (current Georgia Tech player) Jin (Sileo) at shortstop,” Poff said. “Now she’s our shortstop, our leadoff hitter. She’s been walked over 30 times this year and 18 were intentional. What’s cool about her is her leadership goes far beyond what she does with the ball in her hand.”

With teams putting Digby on base, junior third baseman Emily Stern has delivered from the No. 2 spot in the batting order.

“(Stern) leads our team in two-out RBIs and she’s our vocal leader, our hype girl,” Poff said. “As a freshman, she didn’t have a lot of playing time the first time around (in Columbus) so it’s fun to see her be in a bigger role this time.”

Catcher Lani Johnson also has been a big part of the offense, while Saige Herbst has stepped up in the latter stages of her freshman season. The Falcons will need contributions from those players and more to make a run at the state championship this week.

“We’re excited to go, the kids are really excited to go,” Poff said. “This group’s special, not because I’m leaving, they’re special because of the true love they have for each other. It really does translate to the field.”

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Sports Editor for the Gwinnett Daily Post and Regional Sports Director for Southern Community Newspapers, Inc. A Gwinnett native documenting Gwinnett County sports with the GDP since 1997.

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