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Runs for state take off today
All Newton softball teams start with doubleheaders

All three Newton County softball teams are hoping today is just the beginning of a long playoff run. Even with the Georgia High School Association adopting a baseball-style best-of-three format in the first and second rounds, Eastside, Alcovy and Newton all have a legitimate shot of advancing.

Dunwoody at Eastside

The 8-AAA champion Lady Eagles, fresh off a two-game sweep of defending Class AAA champion Oconee County to win the region, will host Dunwoody.

The Lady Eagles, led by senior ace Amanda Henderson (19-5 with nearly 350 strikeouts), are always a threat to go on a run. The right-hander recently struck out 19 batters in a win over Elbert County in the region tournament and has thrown four perfect games.

"It's very comforting," Eastside coach Jason Stokes said of having Henderson in the circle. "You feel like you can win every single game, no matter whether you're hitting or not, you feel like you've got a chance to win the ball game."

But it's not all about Henderson. The sophomore tandem of catcher Amanda Hawkins and first baseman/pitcher Taylor Causey has led a balanced offensive attack that helped fuel a seven-game winning streak. Stokes is happy to see Causey hitting after a slow start, while Hawkins has been steady all season.

"I was worried earlier in the year because it wasn't happening," Stokes said. "But (Causey has) come on just like I expected her to. (Hawkins has) been hitting the ball real solid as well."

Another sophomore that appears to have broken out of a slump is third baseman Emily Almond. In the title-clinching win over Oconee County, Almond, mired in what Stokes thinks was close to an 0-for-30 slump, roped a two-run triple that snapped a 0-0 tie.

"(Almond) just has not hit the ball, we knew she could," Stokes said. "I started noticing in the first game (against Oconee) that she started to swing the bat better, so you kind of felt like something was going to happen."

Thomas County Central at Alcovy

After a heartbreaking finish to the 2008 season, the Tigers return to the state playoffs as Region 4-AAAA's No. 2 seed. Junior Dallas Hardin's job will be two-fold: trying to pitch the fourth-year school into the second round of the playoffs and, as leadoff hitter, igniting an offense averaging more than five runs per game.

While coach Casey Bates is happy with his offense, especially the run-producing ability of junior Kelsey Sweat, he knows that state titles are won with pitching and defense.

"We've got several girls in the lineup that that's their job (to drive in runs); Sweat, she's been driving the ball hard for us," Bates said. "(But) our two strong points is pitching and defense."

Bates is also happy to be hosting the first-round playoff series.

"It's huge being able to host, especially when the team we're playing is four hours away," Bates said. "We don't have to get off the bus and play two games, (but) once the game starts it doesn't matter. Thomas County Central's got 20 wins on the season, so they're going to come in ready to play. You're in the playoffs for a reason.

Newton at Camden County

Traveling more than 300 miles for a first-round series as a No. 4 seed against an undefeated region champion is not an ideal situation.

But one thing Newton has going for it: recent success against the Wildcats. In each of the past three seasons, the Rams have picked up a victory against Camden County in the post-season.

"It helps that we played Camden in the past. Some of these girls have played Camden three times in sectionals and right now we're undefeated," coach Virginia Waters said.

To make it five victories in four years, Newton will need plenty of firepower from Markea Shepperd, who is hitting over .500 with six home runs, and a good pitching from Shea McInerny, who took over in the circle in August when Holly Springer tore her ACL. McInerny has a sub-2.00 ERA.

Waters is confident in her veteran bunch, especially considering the Lady Rams' own victories over PrepCountry.com state-ranked teams Parkview (Class AAAAA No. 9), Spalding (Class AAA No. 8) and Savannah Christian (Class A No. 5), as well as an extra-inning loss to Class AAAAA No. 4 Greenbrier.

"I think (the players) have realized for a long time we're able to play with everybody if we play fundamental softball," Waters said. "We play base-to-base. I think we can hang with anybody."

Kurt Aschermann Jr. can be reached at kurt.aschermann@rockdalecitizen.com.

SideBar: Softball playoffs

STATE TOURNAMENT

First round

(Best-of-three)

Class AAA

Dunwoody at Eastside

· When: Today, first game begins at 4 p.m.

Class AAAA

Thomas County Central at Alcovy

· When: Today, first game begins at 4 p.m.

Class AAAAA

Newton at Camden County

· When: Today, first game begins at 4 p.m.