The chase for berths starts today

CONYERS - For Heritage and Rockdale, the road toward a possible state playoff berth starts today in the Region 8-AAAA softball tournament at the Madison County Sports Complex in Danielsville.

The Lady Patriots, the No. 2 seed from 8-AAAA South, meet Habersham Central, the No. 3 seed from 8-AAAA North, in one of today's opening games at 4 p.m.

The Lady Bulldogs, the No. 3 seed from 8-AAAA South, square off with host Madison County, the No. 2 seed from 8-AAAA North, in today's other opener at 4 p.m.

If Heritage (20-6-1) wins, it advances to play Apalachee, the subregion champion from 8-AAAA North, at 6 p.m. If Rockdale (10-13-1) prevails, it moves on to meet Loganville, the 8-AAAA South subregion champ, also at 6 p.m.

Two victories today would ensure either team a trip to the Class AAAA North state sectional, which is set for Oct. 17 and18 at Hobgood Park in Woodstock.

Heritage coach Dickey Hightower said winning the opening game against Habersham Central (16-8-1) is the key for his squad.

"The real key is we've got to beat Habersham Central in the first game, and then you can think about winning two on the first day," he said. "We can't afford to lose to Habersham Central. If we do, we'll make it really tough on ourselves. The key game of the tournament is the first game."

Heritage and Habersham Central did not play during the regular season. So Hightower isn't exactly sure what to expect from the Lady Raiders.

"Of course, we haven't seen Habersham Central yet," he said. "Hopefully, we can score some runs off them. They haven't given up many all season."

However, Hightower is sure of what it will take for Heritage to earn a state berth - limiting mistakes, good pitching and good hitting.

"What we've really got to do is limit our mental mistakes," he said. "We can have some physical errors, but we can't compound them with mental mistakes. We've got to have a well pitched game from Jamie Melson. If we can do those things, I think we'll be in good shape."

The Lady Patriots will need to continue their strong hitting. Two key players will be leadoff batter Whitney Phillips, who has been an offensive catalyst all season, and slugger Callie Alford, who has been Heritage's best run-producer.

"Hopefully, we'll hit the ball like we've been hitting it lately," Hightower said. "I'm real pleased with the way we're playing right now. We've won 16 of our last 18 games. The only two games we've lost were to Loganville, and we had them on the ropes, but let them off."

Rockdale coach Holly Hamilton knows her squad faces a unique challenge in the opening game - beating the host squad Madison County (19-7).

"The first game in the tournament is every important," she said. "If we get down a game in the tournament, it's definitely going to harder to come back and get into the state sectional. We're also going to be playing the home team, which will make it a little tougher for us."

The Lady Bulldogs are shooting for the second straight trip to the state sectional. After an 0-6 start this season, Rockdale has bounced to win 10 of its last 18 games with its young squad.

"I do feel good about the way we've played, especially in the second half of the season," Hamilton said. "I think our batting will be the key for us. If we hit, we'll be competitive. If we don't hit, it will be kind of tough for us."

SideBar: If You Go

· What: Region 8-AAAA softball tournament

· When: Today to Thursday

* Where: Madison County Sports Complex, Danielsville

* First-round games: Heritage vs. Habersham Central 4 p.m., Rockdale vs. Madison County, 4 p.m.