The Lady Lions (28-7) made back-to-back trips in 2005 and 2006, picking up a Class AAA state runner-up finish the second time. Now the focus is getting that elusive state title, but they are taking it one game at a time.
"Still just focused. Yes, we got to the elite eight, but now we have to be focused on each game. You can't be thinking about the finals or the final four. You have to think, 'First, we have to play Blessed Trinity and we have to beat them.' Right now, we're focused on practicing hard for Blessed Trinity and playing them. Then whatever happens after that, we'll prepare for that," senior catcher Alison Jiles said.
Central, ranked fourth in the state, will start its championship portion of the state tournament against No. 5 Blessed Trinity (25-12), which won the state title in 2007, the year after Central's second place finish. The opener will be played on Thursday at 2:30 p.m. at the Columbus Softball Complex.
With the team's youthful makeup this season, not too many people expected the Lady Lions to do what they did. But a roster consisting of mostly freshmen and sophomores won the regular-season region title, the region tournament and swept the first and second rounds to earn the trip.
"What's so neat about this is coming into the year people said, 'You have a 13-man roster, 10 that are ninth and 10th-graders. It's a rebuilding year. Y'all can compete some.' As I've had time to reflect, the chemistry has just been a joy. It's bittersweet because you're tired because you've been going at it so long, but you're excited about where you are. You're playing the last week of the season and that's great," Central coach Jimmy LeBlanc said. "The chemistry here is really special, and I think that's the difference-maker."
The Lady Titans are now four years removed from their state title, but several members of the team have experience in Columbus, placing third in the state in Class AA last season. Led by Jackie Kinney, a first-team all-state player last season, Blessed Trinity went on to win Region 6-AAA this year, defeat Banks County in three games in the first round and sweep Lakeview-Ft. Oglethorpe in the second round to get to Columbus.
While Central knows it will face Blessed Trinity in the first round, the rest of the way is unknown. With a win, the Lady Lions would face the winner between Pike County and Ringgold later on Thursday at 7:45 p.m. A loss would have them facing elimination against the loser of the same matchup on Friday at 11 a.m.
Because of all the unknowns, the focus is more about Central than who it is playing. The Lady Lions will also be spending the night on Thursday in Columbus because they don't know when they will play Friday.
"A big part of it is being worried about us. You want to be aware of the other teams. You want to know if there's someone you want to pitch around. You want to know if you should pitch someone a certain way," LeBlanc said. "It's difficult sometimes to get information, and so you just do the best you can for that. Ultimately, it's what team handles Columbus the best. [Jiles] said it. This is their first time spending the night together."
Even though the Lady Lions won't be going in with much postseason experience, they are coming in with quite a bit of confidence. In the region tournament, Central won all four games, including a pair of 1-0 wins against Chapel Hill, which has also reached Columbus as a No. 2 seed from 4-AAA. Then the Lady Lions went on to sweep both rounds to get to Columbus by a total score of 41-0. Central has not surrendered a run in six straight games.
"Our defense has been coming on at the end extremely well just making defensive plays here and there. In some games, our defense has made plays that are complete game-changers. That's good going into Columbus. I'm hoping we can carry that on," Jiles said. "I really like how we're looking right now. If we can keep the pitching going, the way we hit in the last game — our hitting was on top — I think with our offense and defense in the last game, if we can take that into Blessed Trinity, we can put up a good match against them."
Everything fell in to place for LeBlanc and his staff when they made the decision to put Rebekah Smith, the lone junior on the team, into left field. From there, that allowed Aubrey Bennett to play short when Taylor Funk was pitching and use the designated player more than Central had earlier in the year.
LeBlanc would never talk about things his team could be capable of, but even with a young group, he's seen a special team do some special things this season.
"I think all year long they've been a special team. A lot of youth and excitement and all that. But at the same time, very mature youth in the way they approach the game," LeBlanc said. "It's nice to know that you're going into the weekend, in my mind, I could make the lineup card right now. There might be some adjustments here and there, but I think we're real solid right there. There are 13 individuals on this team, but every one of them understand their role and they are embracing that role because they see the team's success because of that."
For the seniors — Jiles and Shena Chambers — win or lose, this will mark the final weekend of their prep softball careers. They will get to experience it as a team, in Columbus, with a chance at a state championship.
"I'm really excited," Jiles said. "I'm excited for us to get to bond more because this is the last week of the season. That's kind of bittersweet because this is it for me. I'm looking forward to it. Hopefully, we'll be there all the way to the end. But this will be a good week. I can tell."
For the coach, it is a feeling he hasn't felt since he took the 2005 team to Columbus. There has been a lot of nervous energy since the clinching win last Wednesday.
"I remember when I first got out of coaching years ago, I told Glen Harding, 'I'm going to miss this feeling. But I hate it at the same time.' It's like an itch you can't scratch. The thing with this is it's been going on since Wednesday afternoon after those victories over Peach [County]. It's almost like Christmas morning. You're ready for it to get here and hope you perform well. There are eight quality teams in this bracket, so anybody that puts it together is going to be that team that takes it home. You just hope it's you," LeBlanc said.