MILLEDGEVILLE -- Julie Brooker ripped hard grounders down the third-base line at GMC’s softball field.
The second-year head coach of the Bulldogs took a few more swings before calling her team into a huddle. She wasn’t thrilled with the energy coming from her team -- which is young in age but advanced in experience -- two days prior to the start of the GHSA softball championships in Columbus.
“I need more from you,” Brooker told the team. “We play like this, and we’ll go 0-2 and be back home on Friday night.”
The pep talk worked. The pace of practice flowed a little quicker afterwards. Brooker seemed pleased, hollering encouragement and continuing to smash balls around the field despite being nearly seven months pregnant.
“She’s no different out here,” junior Kaylie Harding said. “She has just as much energy as before.”
Brooker, who played catcher at Georgia, can’t pitch batting practice due to the threat of balls coming back at her, and she might not be able to exert herself as much as she could before, but she had a pretty good idea of what to expect as this is her second pregnancy during a softball season. She still coaches third base, although she did have to move to first base in the Bulldogs’ opening playoff series because the players were getting around too fast on a slower pitcher and raking balls around the coaching box.
The bigger challenge for Brooker was getting her team to wash away memories of a devastating end of the 2012 season.
The Bulldogs swept through the GHSA Class A public school tournament and entered the championship game needing just one win over Gordon Lee to win the title. The Bulldogs beat Gordon Lee 2-1 earlier in the tournament, but they lost twice to Gordon Lee (6-4, 4-1) and came up short in their pursuit of the championship.
“I think we probably got caught up in the moment and didn’t play like we could,” said Jessica Hayles, this year’s lone senior. “I still don’t think I’m over it. It’s a tough pill to swallow. You get to the championship game, and everything falls apart.”
Brooker has been in this position before, leading Westfield to the GISA Class AAA championship series twice only to lose to Stratford both times.
“What I’ve learned now is that you want to take the emotions out of it and just play ball,” said Brooker, who also spent time as the head coach at Tattnall Square. “You just take it one pitch at a time. We’ve talked about championship effort, bringing it to every practice and to every game. When the time comes to playing for a championship, all we have to do is play. ... I’ve tried where you don’t mention the competitor’s name. One year we didn’t talk about the state championship. This year, we’ve talked about it every day. I want them to be comfortable.”
Brooker also scheduled aggressively, and it has seemed to pay off for this team.
The Bulldogs (24-3) have gone 9-2 against teams that will make the trip to Columbus. That mark includes three wins over FPD and tournament wins over Madison County (33-2 in Class AAAA) and Franklin County (26-6 in Class AAA). The Bulldogs’ only neutral-field loss came to South Effingham -- a quarterfinalist in Class AAAA -- at a tournament in Evans.
This year’s GMC team is nearly identical to last year’s squad, which had no seniors.
That experience has carried over to this year, and the Bulldogs have largely been unflappable this season. When one of last year’s top pitchers, Macy Watkins, battled some injuries, hard-throwing junior Dixie Raley has taken over as an ace. She struck out 19 in a shutout win over Perry (another quarterfinalist in Class AAAA) and tossed a no-hitter against Marion County in the opening round of the playoffs.
“We got down on ourselves last year,” Hayles said. “We may have been playing for ourselves. This year, we’re playing together as a team. Togetherness is a big thing. ... If we play together like we have all season, then we’ll be fine.”