CONYERS - Christmas came early for Whitney Phillips this year, arriving the third week of November.
The Heritage standout was one of five to sign a softball scholarship with Georgia State University.
"It's very exciting," Phillips said. "It's what I worked for all my life pretty much; playing ball trying to get to the next level, so I'm finally there."
Phillips, a shortstop/outfielder, batted .333 this season. She collected 36 hits, 29 runs and stole 27 bases in 29 attempts en route to a First Team All-Region selection and Honorable Mention All-State award.
"We're going to miss her and she will be one who's hard to replace," Heritage coach Dickey Hightower said, "but you want them to do well and continue on. It's good for our school, it's good for her and it's nice to tell folks you have the caliber of players who can play in college and she's certainly one of them."
Not even a bruised labrum could stop Phillips from helping the Lady Patriots to a 23-10-1 overall record this season and a second-place finish in the 8-AAAA Regionals.
Although no operation was required and doctors cleared her to play, Phillips is resting her arm as she works to rehabilitate it before suiting up at the next level.
"Her injury really limited her playing ability," Hightower said. "She probably played at about 70-75 percent all year, but she wanted to play and still managed to compile a great season. Hopefully, she'll get well."
During her three years at Heritage, Phillips batted .363 with 99 hits, 36 RBIs and 79 runs scored.
"I'm going to miss Coach Hightower because he cares so much about the girls on our team," Phillips said. "He puts so much effort into everything that we do and really turned our program around. I'm going to miss the girls because we played together for so long - we have a camaraderie that you can't find everywhere."
According to Hightower, Phillips' greatest assets include her athleticism, versatility and speed.
"She'll have as much speed as anybody Georgia State's had in a long time," he said. "She will really help them running bases. She's smart, but she's also got real good speed."
In four years, Phillips swiped 79 bases in 83 attempts (95 percent).
"Whitney is a talented young lady who is capable of playing infield and outfield," Georgia State coach Bob Heck said. "She possesses good athletic skills and is a welcome addition to our ball team."
Transitioning from high school to college comes with plenty of hurdles, most of which Phillips should clear.
"It's a faster-paced game, more intense practices and games and more bang-bang plays," Hightower said. "I think the biggest adjustment is the conditioning. The biggest transition is to make sure that your grades are good and then make your time count every minute.
"She's a real good student. She does a real good job in the classroom."
According to Phillips, she is looking forward to the new experience and playing with the girls, some of whom she knows and has played with and/or against.
"I'm glad it's off my shoulders and I know where I'm going," Phillips said of her decision. "It's great to let it set in before I have to go, so it's nice to have that comfort."
Whether Phillips will have an immediate impact at Georgia State is uncertain.
"She should get some significant playing time," Hightower said. "They're going to have a very veteran ball club next year, which may mean that Whitney will play in the outfield. I don't want to put words in Coach Heck's mouth, but he will probably put her in the outfield to start with.
"The place she can help them the most her first year would be in the outfield," he added. "She ought to be able to start for them, but it all depends on how well she gets."
Should her work ethic and competitiveness remain unchallenged, Phillips undoubtedly will earn a starting role.
"I'm going to contribute to the team any way I can; that's the goal going up there," she said. "I'll just do what the coach asks me to do, working hard trying to get a spot. But if I don't I'll cheer my teammates on and do what I can."
Jason Murdock can be reached at email@example.com.