With three state playoff appearances to their credit, the one thing the Lady Buccaneers had been lacking was a region championship.
That is, until now.
The banner had already been made, so all top-seeded Allatoona needed to do was win on its own field, and it did.
The Lady Buccaneers broke a 1-all tie with a run in the fourth inning, then added three insurance runs in the fifth to beat third-seeded South Paulding 5-1 in Thursday’s Region 5AAAAA championship game.
“We finally won,” Allatoona senior Malorie Penge said. “We finally did it!”
Often a favorite to win their region, the Lady Buccaneers had only reached a region final once before this season, in 2011.
Having won its elusive region title, Allatoona (22-9) will host the No. 4 seed from Region 8AAAAA in the first round of the Class AAAAA state playoffs next week.
“It definitely feels great,” said senior Bre Richey, who was 1-for-2 with a two-run double in the fifth and scored a run. “This year’s team really came together. As the seniors have gone through the program, we’ve been runner-up at state, and we’ve come close to winning the region championship so many times before. So, to finally do it, it feels great.”
South Paulding (22-10-1) had several chances to take a big lead after stranding seven runners on base, leaving the bases loaded in the second and third innings. However, Allatoona pitcher Casey Lewis and the Lady Buccaneers’ defense stepped up to only allow one run in the top of the third.
South Paulding’s Ansley Wilbanks led off the third with a single, Maddie Appleby was hit by a pitch and Jordan Hodby walked to load the bases with one out. Kayla Gibson then hit a pitch to the left side of the infield, but third baseman Hailey Reagor threw to catcher Jessica Finch to get Wilbanks out at home.
The Lady Spartans, however, converted on their next opportunity behind Erika Arthrell’s RBI single, but Amber Green struck out in the next at-bat to end the threat.
Allatoona immediately responded with a run in the bottom half of the frame. Erika Dunbar walked and later scored on Morgan Kazerooni’s RBI double.
Back-to-back doubles from Lewis and Elisabeth Federici to lead off the fourth gave the Lady Buccaneers a one-run advantage before Allatoona exploded for three runs in the next inning.
Finch walked to start the fifth. Reagor then reached second on a throwing error that allowed pinch-runner Morgan Nesbit, who was in for Finch, to third.
Richey’s one-out double plated Nesbit and Reagor for a 4-1 Allatoona cushion, and Richey took advantage of another two-base error to score for the 5-1 lead.
Lewis, who allowed one earned run on seven hits, bent but didn’t break from the circle as she stranded runners in scoring position over the final two innings to get the win. She also batted 2-for-3 with a double.
“These seniors have been through a lot of close calls over the years,” Allatoona coach Troy Pirkle said. “This means a lot to these guys. Now, we can relax. We had a shot at the championship in previous years, but we also had to face some really good teams. Give credit to South Paulding for fighting through the losers’ bracket to get here.
“We just got some big hits and played well defensively to win. This was one of our goals all season, and now we can cross it off. It takes a huge weight off our shoulders. Now, everybody is 0-0 again, and it’s a new season.”
Four of Allatoona’s eight hits were doubles from Kazerooni, Richey, Lewis and Federici. Dunbar batted 2-for-3.
“It’s coming from different kids in the lineup all of the time,” Pirkle said of his team’s extra-base hits. “Someone different is always stepping up at different times. It makes it tough for the other teams, and it gives us confidence and we build off each other.”