Mary Wilson Avant didn’t need long to introduce herself to GHSA softball.
The junior pitcher from Stratford, who already has committed to play at Georgia, opened her team’s first GHSA season in dominating style Saturday. She struck out 18 while allowing just one hit and one walk in 10 innings of work in a doubleheader sweep (12-0, 4-0) at Warner Robins.
Just like that, a Class A private school team fresh out of the GISA blanked a team from one of the largest schools in Middle Georgia.
That opener won’t be Stratford’s lone meeting with a Class AAAAA program. In what could turn into the biggest non-region game of the season involving two teams from Middle Georgia, the Eagles are scheduled to play at Houston County, the third-place team in the Class AAAAA Elite Eight last season, on Aug. 23 in the Brawl in the Fall tournament.
Add to that a couple of meetings with strong Atlanta private school teams and a region schedule that includes the Eagles’ closest GISA rivals from years past, and Stratford has the type of schedule that would prepare it well for a potential trip to Columbus for the Elite Eight at the end of October.
“It’s hard to say (how things will go),” said Stratford head coach Jeff Treadway, whose team added a 5-2 win over Strong Rock on Monday behind Avant’s 11 strikeouts. “We’re going to play Wesleyan (a Class AA second-round participant last year) up there this year. We know there are very good teams (in the Atlanta area). Some of them are bigger schools than we are and have good players. Having a good pitcher always keeps you in ballgames, so we’re going to rely heavily on pitching this year.”
Two other private school teams in Region 7-A, Tattnall Square and FPD, are also in position to make runs to Columbus following strong 2013 seasons.
Last year’s GISA Class AAA champion, Tattnall opened its season Tuesday against Strong Rock. Defending Class A private school champion Eagle’s Landing Christian is on the Trojans’ schedule, as well as a game with Veterans, a Class AAAA second-round qualifier last season, in the Brawl in the Fall.
Both Stratford and Tattnall have games scheduled against Rutland, which reached the second round of the Class AAAA playoffs last season, and FPD played Rutland on Saturday.
“I believe you have to play good competition to get better,” said Tattnall head coach Joey Hiller, who lost pitcher Kirsten Albright and catcher Jade Moncrief to graduation (both signed with GMC’s junior college program) but returns the rest of last season’s starting lineup. “We have two-time champion ELCA coming in, and they didn’t graduate anyone. We’re starting off against teams that are as good as you can play.”
FPD reached the Elite Eight last year, winning three elimination bracket games before falling 1-0 to eventual runner-up Prince Avenue Christian to settle for third place. The Vikings opened the season Saturday with a one-run loss to Class AAAA Elite Eight participant Perry and a 5-1 win over Rutland, with sophomore utility player Maggie Renfroe picking up three doubles and four RBI in the two games.
Add Class A public school runner-up GMC in crossover play, and the road to the Region 7-A title will be very competitive. Power rankings will determine most of the state tournament qualifiers, so it’s possible multiple Bibb County teams could wind up in Columbus for the Class A private school Elite Eight.
“It’s going to be tremendously competitive,” FPD head coach Jim Turner said. “Coach Hiller at Tattnall, Coach Treadway at Stratford and (first-year head coach) Katherine Smith at Mount de Sales all have great programs and are really good teachers of the game. Our region just gets increasingly more difficult.”
New this season: Stratford, Tattnall Square and Mount de Sales are in GHSA Region 7-A after playing in GISA Region 2-AAA last season. Tattnall won the GISA Class AAA title last season, while Stratford has a junior pitcher (Mary Wilson Avant) who has committed to Georgia.
Last year’s Elite Eight teams: Houston County (third place in Class AAAAA), Perry (1-2 in Class AAAA), GMC (second place in Class A public), Hawkinsville (fourth place in Class A public), Treutlen (0-2 in Class A public), FPD (third place in Class A private).
GHSA softball 2014
This year’s Elite Eight: Oct. 30-Nov. 1 in Columbus.