In the new format the Lady Eagles (20-12) swept Echols County in the first round of the playoffs to be one of the top eight public school teams left in Class A. The first step is realizing that while there are tough teams left, MZ is one of them.
"It's special to realize you're in the last eight. Everybody that you play there is going to be good, but you're good too or you wouldn't be there. It doesn't come along every day. This is the first time we've gone in fast pitch, we went one other time in slow pitch and it was [assistant] coach [Jennifer] Carter's senior year," MZ coach Millie Grimes said.
It takes skill, and maybe a little bit of luck, to make it to Columbus. But now that her team is there, Grimes hopes the youth continues to be a positive and that the experience doesn't overwhelm them.
"If you've never been down there you really don't know what to expect. Once they get there, I think they'll realize how special it is with all the different classifications and watching some of the other ball teams play. It's something that a lot of girls play their whole career and don't get a taste of. I'm hoping we get a taste of it and like it and go back for the next few years because I think we've got a good chance," Grimes said.
The youth has actually been a benefit through most of the season. With a roster filled with freshmen and sophomores, only two juniors and no seniors the learning curve was picked up quickly. There were times that the youth got the best of them, but those times have been put behind them and they are ready to make the most of this year.
"I think it can be because, maybe, they don't feel the pressure that older kids might feel. It's just, 'OK, here we are. Let's go play.' It's good to be focused and ready to play, but it's also good to be relaxed," Grimes said. "I'm hoping we don't get overwhelmed when we get there."
While there might not be the same amount of pressure, that doesn't mean the Lady Eagles are going into this week with a, 'We can do this next year,' mentality. They are ready to make some noise this year and next year.
"We want to win this year. We want to win next year too," Jennifer Bagby said. "Everyone always looks at us and thinks we're seniors, but then they find out we're coming back ... Everybody looks up to you now, and to know we're going to have the same team next year [is special]."
Bagby and fellow junior Corrssia Perry are the natural leaders of the team, but even some of the sophomores have stepped up during the season.
"We expect them, because they do have a year on everybody, to be leaders — Corrssia in the outfield and J.B. on the infield. But it's amazing, even some of the sophomores like Jayde [Bradley] because of being the pitcher has taken on some of the responsibilities too. This team, we don't seem to be fighting for who we're going to listen to. We covered that in the beginning," Grimes said.
One of the things covered was that it would be the coaches job to get on players and the job of the players to be supportive. With the way they have played, led and succeeded Grimes admitted that sometimes the roster doesn't seem as young as it is.
"I guess I forget a lot of times how young we are because, as a coaching staff, we expect them to play as upperclassmen. We expect them all to play as juniors and seniors. Part of it because we know what they're capable of and part of it is we've been around them so long it seems like we've had them for years. We don't expect them anymore to make those freshmen mistakes, not even the freshmen," Grimes said.
The first task for the Lady Eagles will come in the form of ninth ranked Seminole County (29-4) at 9 a.m. on Thursday. After that the opponents will be based on how MZ does. With a win they will face the winner of Telfair County and Miller County at 6 p.m. A loss would put the Lady Eagles against the loser of the same matchup on Friday at 9 a.m.
Without knowing who the opponent will be in Game 2, the focus has been on preparing a little for Seminole County and a lot on being ready for whoever.
"Seems that [Seminole County] does score a good bit of runs, they like to bunt," Grimes said. "Found out that they do hit a lot to the outfielders and the outfielders being able to make the plays. On their pitching, they've got one that's pretty fast and one that's a little slower but hits her spots a lot. They are both competitive and you have to be ready.
"We're looking and concentrating a little on Seminole, but we're just getting ready to go play. You might talk to a coach in between games a little bit to get a little heads up, but going and playing any tournament you've got to make sure you do what you're supposed to do. After that first round that's basically what we're going to do."
MZ is a confident squad, not overconfident or cocky, but know they have what it takes to make some noise in Columbus. What helps is playing in the same region as two-time defending Class A state champion Gordon Lee. The Lady Eagles wouldn't mind facing them again this year, in fact, they want it.
"We want another shot at Gordon Lee," Bradley said. "It makes us feel like we have a chance with any team we play."
And it's not only the players that are ready to see what they can do.
"It's been a fun group. It's been frustrating at times, just like any team when you're trying to get them to focus and do the things you know they're capable of and see they can do. I think we can go into Columbus and win a few ball games, I really do. Of course it depends on who's doing good on that day," Grimes said.