The 2014 softball season will culminate this week with the annual State Elite 8 Tournament in Columbus. Teams in every classification have battled through regular season ups and downs, through region play and region playoffs, and through the first two rounds of the state tourney, just to find themselves a few wins away from the goal of becoming state champion.
Chapel Hill is one of these teams. The Lady Panthers jumped up two classifications in the off-season, and despite the odds stacked against them, now find themselves ready to battle it out with the elite of Class 5A.
The road in front of them will be paved with many speed bumps as they take on seven other elite teams in the classification, including Cambridge, Greenbrier, Union Grove, Columbus, Allatoona, Harris County and Loganville. All eight teams will play against each other in a double-elimination tournament starting on Thursday, and ending Saturday with a championship game.
While each team is a danger to Chapel Hill’s title hopes, right now CHHS coach Mick Harper is solely focused on the host school, which will be the first team the Lady Panthers face at 4:45 p.m. at the the cities Softball Complex on Thursday.
“The majority of my time has been spent looking at them,” Harper said. “I like to look at pitching first and they have two quality arms, a senior and a sophomore.”
The senior pitcher, Mary Catherine Smith, will most likely start the Elite 8 first round game.
“She has good command and throws relatively hard, but she will not overpower you. She does not throw a lot of off-speed pitches, so we will need to sit back and get our timing down on the hard stuff,” Harper said.
The Chapel Hill coach added that Columbus has a quality catcher, but the quicker Lady Panther runners should be able to take a base. Offensively, they have a little pop with only one slap hitter. They have some left-handed pop in Smith and Derykah Ray.
Columbus (26-9-1) is the most immediate threat to a Chapel Hill championship run, but their are six other schools and anyone of them could win in any game.
Cambridge is the No. 1 ranked team in the state. The Lady Bears (24-3) defeated Alexander in a three-game battle behind ace sophomore pitcher, Keara Napoli. Napoli also helped the offense in game three against the Lady Cougars, leading her team to a 3-0 victory and an Elite 8 Tourney berth.
“They have ridden their pitcher, and her velocity has gotten them to where they are now,” Harper said. “They have average to average-plus sticks and don’t use a lot of speed. They have won a lot of low scoring, close games. The key will be to put the ball in play and let our offense go to work. We have proven that we can hit upper velocity pitches.”
Greenbrier (32-5), who Chapel Hill could meet in the second round of the tournament, has been ranked No. 2 in the state for several weeks. Chapel Hill recently jumped them in the rankings to take over the second spot.
“They are probably the most well balanced team in Columbus,” Harper said. “They don’t have as much power as we do and have to manufacture runs a little more. They are above average all the way around the diamond and do a good job executing in hit and runs and sacrifices.”
Union Grove (25-8) is a team that Harper is not taking lightly. Offensively, they are very similar to what Chapel Hill does.
“They can manufacture runs, but they can swing the bats,” Harper said. “They can drive the ball in the gaps or out of the park.”
Allatoona is a team that Harper is very familiar with. The Lady Buccaneers and Lady Panthers have met three times this season, with Chapel Hill winning the last two games. Harper said that neither he or the Allatoona coach are really looking forward to meeting for the fourth time in the season, but it may be inevitable.
“They have three pitchers they can run out there and each one can shut you down,” Harper said. “They have one of the best catchers in the classification and I am not fond of their leadoff hitter. She has speed and can handle the bat. We have been successful offensively against them.”
Loganville and Harris County are two teams Harper knows less about. Loganville is a team that always seems to be competing in the Elite 8 Tournament.
“They are not as strong as they have been in the past, but they know how to win. Being in this tourney will not intimidate them. They can manufacture runs and make you make plays,” Harper said. “Harris is the team I know the least about. I see them being very similar to Loganville, just without the tourney experience. They have won some tight games. They beat Northgate to get here and Northgate was ranked high and beat us earlier in the year. They put the ball in play and do not strike out.”
Chapel Hill will be led into the tourney behind the most powerful offense in school history. The Lady Panthers are hitting .391 as a team. They currently hold the school record with 28 home runs.
Chapel Hill is led by sophomore phenom Ashley Morgan. Morgan is hitting .606 with a .727 on-base percentage and 1.029 slugging percentage. She leads the team in all three categories, and also home runs (7), triples (3), doubles (17), hits (63), runs (49) and RBIs (59). What’s even more impressive is that Morgan has a team low five strikeouts for an everyday starter.
Hallie Rutledge, Shelby Robinson and Savana Sikes are all hitting over .450. Rutledge has six home runs, and both Sikes and Malynn Haven have five each. Robinson provides plenty of speed at the top of the lineup with 42 steals.
Morgan and Darby Demarest lead the team inside the circle. Demarest, with an 18-3 record, has been nearly untouchable for the second half of the season and currently boasts a 1.13 ERA. She has 146 strikeouts and only 33 walks in 111 innings of work. Morgan’s ERA sits at 2.44 in just under 100 innings. She has a record of 13-1, with 125 strikeouts and 27 walks.
“I definitely feel like we deserve to be here and I would not trade this team with any other in Columbus,” Harper said. “This is our fifth time as a program making it to this level. We don’t need to do anything spectacular. We just need to make the routine plays, execute offensively, and take advantage of mistakes.”
Chapel Hill is currently 31-4 and on a 24 game winning streak.