For the first time, six Cobb County teams punched tickets to softball’s state championships, which begin today at the South Commons Softball Complex.
First-time entrant Pope will join returning programs Kennesaw Mountain, Lassiter, Harrison, Allatoona and Hillgrove in the round of eight.
This year’s total of six surpassed the old mark of four county teams sent to Columbus each of the last two seasons.
“As many Cobb County teams as we can get to Columbus the better off we all are,” Allatoona coach Troy Pirkle said. “The parity of softball in the county, and the state, has changed a lot, and there are a lot of teams with a legitimate shot at competing for a state championship. This will be fun to watch.”
The tournament will follow a double-elimination format until the champions are crowned Saturday.
First-round games begin today at 4:15 p.m. for the Class AAAAA teams — Pope and Allatoona — with the other four teams playing at 6 p.m. in the Class AAAAAA tournament.
Most eyes will be on Region 4AAAAAA champion Kennesaw Mountain, which has held the state’s top ranking since the final week of August. The Lady Mustangs are one of five teams trying to snap Gwinnett County’s streak of four straight championships in the state’s highest classification.
After Lassiter brought Cobb County its last title in 2007, Mill Creek won in ’08, and Collins Hill has captured the last three titles.
Kennesaw Mountain (29-3-2) is in the state finals for the fourth time in five years — missing out in 2010. It will open play today with the team that knocked the Lady Mustangs out of last year’s draw, Mill Creek (22-13-1).
Kennesaw Mountain, which beat Mill Creek 4-1 during the regular season, returns seven starters from last year’s team, including seniors Bekah Farris, Molly Uhrman and Amanda Hallman.
“Our focus is we’re not taking anybody for granted,” Kennesaw Mountain coach Lisa Chapman said. “We played Mill Creek earlier this year, but that was then. It’s different now and everybody down there is as good as everybody else, and we understand that.”
Harrison (22-11) is making its eighth state finals appearance, having won a state title in 2000 and finished as the runner-up in 1998, 1999 and 2010.
The Lady Hoyas made the state tournament as the No. 4 seed from Region 4AAAAAA, and they upset Tift County and Rockdale County to reach Columbus.
In order to keep its magic alive, Harrison, with a healthy pitching corps led by Pierce Fox, and the efforts of seniors Kaci Giles and Amber Broome, will need to get past three-time defending champion Collins Hill (25-8), which beat the Lady Hoyas 1-0 earlier this season.
“We lost that game on an unearned run, and each team only got three hits,” Harrison coach Matt Jones said. “It’s a unique situation for us going against the defending champions. It will be about managing nerves more than anything and understanding that we deserve to be here.”
Hillgrove (28-9) finished third overall last year in its first state finals appearance. Led by seniors Brittany Ferrell, Mikaela Morris and Qiley Lewis, the Lady Hawks upset Lowndes and Alcovy to reach the finals again this year.
Hillgrove will battle Region 8AAAAAA runner-up Archer (29-7) in the first round. Archer beat Hillgrove 5-3 last month.
“We overcame a lot at the start of the season, but I knew, once we got everybody on the same page, we’d back in the state finals,” said Hillgrove coach Laura Voyles, alluding to the departure of former coach Jason Campbell for the same position at Lassiter. “Coach Campbell was a big part of these girls’ lives, and some didn’t know how to take it. It was a big change for both of us, but we grew as a team, and here we are.”
Campbell’s former team will be joined by his new squad as four seniors — including Sammi Green, Veronica Ulicny and Mackenzie Kayler — lead Lassiter (30-5-1) into a fourth appearance in the state finals.
The Lady Trojans will take on East Coweta (31-3-1).
Allatoona and Pope will carry the torch for the county in Class AAAAA.
Allatoona (26-9), led by seniors Bre Richey and Jessica Finch, won its first Region 5AAAAA title this year and is in the state finals for the third straight season.
The Lady Buccaneers, the Class AAA runner-up in 2010, will play Region 4AAAAA No. 4 seed Whitewater (24-10-1), the Class AAAA state runner-up in 2009 and ’11.
“To win down there, your kids have to make plays defensively,” Pirkle said. “A lot of times, wins are boiled down to who makes the fewest mistakes and who takes advantage of scoring opportunities. You have to cash those in when those opportunities are there.”
Pope (25-5) has had a banner year thus far, capturing its first region championship in 7AAAAA and making its first appearance at the state finals. In order to continue, the Lady Greyhounds will need a strong effort from seniors Laura Beall, Jenna Reilly and Laura Miller, as well as sophomore pitching ace Kelly Barnhill — who made last year’s state finals with North Cobb.
Pope will take on Region 2AAAAA champion Greenbrier (29-6), which was the 2010 runner-up in Class AAAA.
Pope coach Chris Turco said he spoke to Lassiter’s coach for advice on what to expect in Columbus.
“I spoke with coach Campbell to get some advice on what to expect, and some procedural things,” Turco said. “His first time down here was with Hillgrove last year, so he was helpful. But the girls are excited to play. They have high expectations and they’ve come down here to win it all and take home the trophy. They know we’ll have some tough games, starting with Greenbrier, but they’re fired up to be there for a while.”