Jeff Hurndon Photography / Union Grove outfielder Madison Moore has emerged lately as a productive hitter in the lower half of the lineup.
McDONOUGH — The collapse is off limits. Union Grove softball players don’t speak of it. And if it comes up somehow, it’s exploited for good.
“It’ll come up here and there,” Union Grove senior pitcher Megan Betsa said. “But if it does, we’re just like, ‘That was in the past and we’re focused on the future.’”
The present sets up awfully like the past. Union Grove enters Columbus for the three-day, eight-team finale of the state softball tournament ranked No. 1 in Class AAAAA and feeling the momentum from a region championship and auspicious first two rounds.
The Lady Wolverines start with South Paulding on Thursday at 4:15 p.m. and would play the Allatoona-Whitewater winner at 7 p.m. if they win.
That’s where Union Grove’s promising season went south a year ago. After a grueling 12-inning, 4-3 win over Madison County in their first game at Columbus, the Lady Wolverines — ranked No. 1 in the state, with an infield full of seniors and a Division I pitcher on the mound — lost to Northgate in eight innings and Northwest Whitfield.
A talented and veteran team felt it had squandered perhaps the program’s best opportunity to win a state championship.
But here they are again.
“This team wants it,” Union Grove coach Rod Pipkin said, “because it ended so bad [last year].”
This Union Grove team feels it has a hunger it lacked last season.
“They’re humbled and hungrier,” Pipkin said. “Humbled by last year. Hungry because they’re younger.”
Indeed, the Lady Wolverines are aware of the uncertainty Columbus brings. Players said high school softball’s penulatimate event is like the Disney of softball, a mix of team-bonding and ultra-competitive games.
But the wake-up call came last Wednesday, when Union Grove dropped the first game of its second round doubleheader 3-2 in 11 innings to Houston County.
The post-game talk was no ordinary one. Players didn’t simply bunch up in front of Pipkin for a few words. Junior centerfield Katie Spinks remembers the team near the left-field wall with players sitting in a perfect circle. Betsa said there were tears and emphatic words.
“It was serious,” Spinks said. “The seniors were feeling it.”
Union Grove came out of it back in proper form. The Lady Wolverines won consecutive 8-0 games Wednesday and Thursday to eliminate Houston County and punch their Columbus ticket.
It was compelling softball theater, but also a reminder of the unique qualities of this Union Grove team that give it hope for a state title.
With the loss of seven seniors, Union Grove required a new group to not just emerge in talent, but also leadership. It infused the team with newfound intensity.
“The young players wanted to step in and earn their spot,” senior second baseman Jacqueline Tanner said. “They wanted to play.”
They also brought more versatility with them. Union Grove often relied exclusively on Betsa, Jordan Corbin and Haley Chambley for run production last season. That hasn’t been the case this year.
“We have a much deeper lineup,” Pipkin said. “The youngsters have stepped up and hit.”
Pipkin mentioned youngsters like catcher Courtney Kenney, who seized the starter’s role a few games into the season; Spinks, a left-handed slapping leadoff batter with an on-base percentage around .600; and Madison Moore, a sophomore outfielder Pipkin said has emerged as a threat in the bottom half of the lineup.
And that will be the key, according to Union Grove — hitting, and doing it in the big moments. When they couldn’t against Houston County, it meant runners left on base and a loss. When they couldn’t in last season’s state tournament, it meant the state championship run came crashing to an end.
But that was last year. That’s off limits.
This year, Union Grove believes it’s going to be different.
“It’s a whole different feeling this year,” junior shortstop Megan McConnell said.