CONYERS - It's hard to imagine where the Heritage softball team would be without its eight seniors - certainly not preparing for the Class AAAA North Sectional this weekend.
Prior to the arrival of Kat Baize, Katie Cuson, Jessica Hornsby, Jamie Melson, Jaclyn Queen, Whitney Phillips, Ashley Ward and Sydonie Wiggins three years ago - as well as coach Dickey Hightower - the Lady Patriots were just 4-17.
"Well, this year we've got a whole lot more seniors," Hightower said. "When I first came here, these seniors were sophomores, and six of those eight have started 99 percent of every game we've played. So they're a big part of our team - they're real special. They were the first girls I saw when I got here, and they're good softball players. It's going to be hard to replace them, but we do have some younger girls who are pretty good softball players."
Overall, the seniors have combined for a 53-32-2 record. This year, they are experiencing their most productive run, compiling a 23-8-1 record.
All eight losses have been against teams that have reached this year's sectionals.
Though each has played a pivotal role, Melson has been the catalyst of the group. She has dominated in the circle with a 17-5 record, including an unprecedented 0.67 earned run average. In addition, Melson has 112 strikeouts compared to just 11 walks.
"We're going to miss Jamie," Hightower said. "She's had a heck of a season and a heck of a three years. She's not your typical power high school pitcher; Jamie is just smart and knows what she's doing. She is as composed as anybody I've seen on the mound, and I've been doing this a while. She's just a great kid."
Offensively, Melson is batting .373 with 12 RBIs and 10 runs scored. But she credits her teammates and coaches for her success.
"I've played with most of (my teammates) since the seventh grade," Melson said. "They've all been behind me, and I've learned a lot from the coaches. I've just learned to believe in myself and that I can do it. I'm going to miss everyone a lot."
Phillips, who has committed to Georgia State and will sign in November, has been equally impressive. The Heritage leadoff hitter is hitting .337 with 12 RBIs and a team-high 27 stolen bases.
"I think it's awesome what we've done," she said. "Every year we get better. It's been a big improvement and the first time we've ever gone to sectionals, so I'm pretty excited about that."
Baize has enjoyed a solid year for Heritage with a respectable .290 average, including 14 RBIs and 19 runs scored.
"I think what we had this season was really special," Baize said. "The chemistry between Coach Hightower and us as a team is something you just can't find anywhere. He's the best thing that's happened to our softball program because he brought the positive attitude. It was a desire to win, not just to play softball, and it takes time. But I'm never going to forget this year."
Hornsby, who is hitting .262 with 10 RBIs and 15 runs scored, is far from ready to finish play.
"It's exciting and has just been a great experience to play for Coach Hightower," she said. "I've made a lot of friends on the softball team, and it's carried on through the school."
Cuson, who has 18 runs and a team-high 13 walks, takes it one step further.
"We share this unity thing, kind of like we're family," Cuson said. "The softball field is my home away from home. Getting to know each other was so much fun, and then playing together was such a good thing."
Yet the journey is far from over.
Standing in Heritage's way is Northwest Whitfield in the first round of the North Sectional on Friday at Hobgood Park in Woodstock.
"We're going to have to back each other up and play with a lot of confidence," Queen said.
Wiggins is far more optimistic.
"We worked hard and we played hard," she said. "Our coaches had a lot of faith in us - everybody did. This is definitely something to be proud of. I have faith, and I know we're going to go to state."
Overall, the Lady Bruins are 20-13-1. They have won 18 of their last 20 games.
Jason Murdock can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.