At 23-5, Pope has its second straight 20-plus win season, and its doubleheader sweep of Creekview for the Region 7AAAAA championship on Oct. 3 earned the Lady Greyhounds their first region title in program history.
Last season, Pope was denied a trip to its first state finals in Columbus after losing its second round Class AAAA state playoff series at Northwest Whitfield, 2-1.
With a first-round sweep at home over Arabia Mountain in the Class AAAAA state playoffs last week, the ninth-ranked Lady Greyhounds have another shot at reaching Columbus, but they must go through Heritage-Conyers in a best-of-three series beginning Wednesday to get there.
The seventh-ranked Patriots won’t be easy targets. Heritage, the Region 8AAAAA runner-up, is 30-3 on the season with 23 shutouts. Two of its losses were narrow setbacks to Region 8AAAAA champion Loganville.
Heritage averages 6.9 runs per game, while giving up only 0.9. Pope is just as competitive, scoring 7.2 runs per contest while limiting teams to 1.5.
“They’re probably one of the best teams in the state, so it will be a challenge,” Pope coach Chris Turco said. “This is the kind of matchup you’d like to see in Columbus as opposed to the second round, but here it is.
“I understand it will be tough, but hopefully if we can win the series, it will make us that much better and ready for Columbus. They have a junior pitcher, Kierra Camp, who’s been very successful, and they play strong defensively. Hopefully, we can come out and swing the bats a little bit and get things going.”
Swinging the bats is what Pope has done well this season. With eight players batting over .300, the Lady Greyhounds are capable of scoring runs in bunches. The team also has a stellar pitching staff led by sophomore Kelly Barnhill and junior Lindsey Walsh.
“This year, we’ve had some timely hitting and our pitchers have been dominating,” Turco said. “They have great command in the circle, and our catcher, Laura Beall, is stepping up behind the plate. As a team, we’re batting at about .350 on the season, which is the second best in our history. Overall, this is probably one of the best teams we’ve ever had.”
Pope’s successful rise has largely been due to the growth in its junior program. Many of the team’s current members grew up playing together on the same youth teams, which has helped to build chemistry and teamwork.
“Our junior teams have done an unbelievable job,” Turco said. “In tryouts we’ll have close to 25 kids in the program, and our junior varsity team gets them ready for the varsity level.
“This senior class with Laura Beall, Laura Miller and Jenna Reilly is one of the most talented we’ve had since I’ve been here. They’ve attained their goals each year, and helped us to steadily move forward.”
“We definitely set our goals high this year,” she said. “Last year wasn’t disappointing, but once we knew we could do better, we’ve been excited for the season.
“The team atmosphere is huge. We’re close and we trust each other. Everybody gives 100 percent and we all understand every inning matters. Opening up our hitting has really helped us, and so has our pitching. Knowing that you have a solid team backing you up makes things seem easy.”
Great pitching, timely hitting and solid defense will certainly be what Pope needs if it wants to pack bags for Columbus for the first time this week. As the anticipation builds for what could be a banner season, Turco hopes his team can be a standard bearer the school this year.
“We have great fan support and everyone of us wants to get to Columbus,” he said. “As the first Fall sport, we kick off athletics to begin the year for the school, so we want to set a great example for Pope and go as far as possible.”