But Lady Lion coach Jimmy LeBlanc enters today’s 4 p.m. Class AAA opening-round playoff doubleheader against fourth-seeded Brantley County with cautious optimism, noting that it’s a new season where there are no more pushovers in the opposing dugout.
Central (24-7), the No. 1 seed from Region 4 and ranked No. 4 in the state, has won six in a row and 11 of its past 12 heading into the showdown with the Lady Herons (9-16), who actually made the 300-mile trek from southeast Georgia to Carrollton on Tuesday evening. The if-game is set for Thursday at 4 p.m.
“You put yourself in the right place, and that’s where you would map out that you would want to be — the No. 1 seed playing a No. 4 — but the reality is it’s the state tournament and everybody that’s here has done something to get there,” LeBlanc said.
And while the Lady Herons — which is a long-legged freshwater bird — may not have a sparkling record this year, they’re coming off a 25-8 campaign in Class AA last season that saw them reach the elite eight in Columbus.
LeBlanc said now is certainly not the time to overlook anyone or your season could be over before you know it.
“You can look at a record and say, ‘Wow.’ But if you look at who they play, they’ve played some really large schools. A lot of AAAA, AAAAA and AAAAAA schools. So you just can’t look at the record in anything, but especially a game like this. How many one-run games, how many [international tie-breakers] did they have? So the bottom line is, you better come out ready to play because everybody that you play is going to be a worthy opponent,” LeBlanc said.
Central hung its hat on strong pitching from sophomore right-hander Taylor Funk and some dynamic defense in a pair of 1-0 victories over No. 10 Chapel Hill in the region tournament semifinals and finals last week. But LeBlanc said in order to make a postseason run, the Lady Lion bats need to wake up and make a little more noise.
“I mean, we only scored a combined total of two runs in our last two games. That’s got to be fixed. We’ve got to be able to put runs on the board. We left too many out on the bases,” LeBlanc said.
Central’s top run-producer — senior catcher Alison Jiles — said the team is confident entering the playoffs and looks forward to getting started today in front of the home crowd.
“I guess you could say we’re feeling pretty good because our main goal was to win region, so now we have that under our belt. Now I really want us to get back to the elite eight. You know, set back up the momentum that Central softball’s always had. I’d really love for us just to get back to that,” Jiles said. “We don’t really know much about Brantley, but we’re really just going to have to come out expecting them to be just as good as we are.”
Central has just one loss to a Class AAA school all season — a 7-6, eight-inning setback to Rockmart on Sept. 18 — and the Lady Lions will try to continue that trend of success and move on to the second round, where it would face the winner of No. 2 Swainsboro/No. 3 Peach County next Wednesday.
Of course, LeBlanc’s only focus right now is on the Lady Herons.
“I haven’t even looked ahead. We’ve got Brantley County right in front of us. I couldn’t tell you a choice of four schools of who we might play next,” LeBlanc said. “We’ve got enough time to prepare for that if we’re fortunate enough to beat them. But right now it’s all about Brantley County. And to me, it’s about your kids. How are our kids going to play? If your kids do the best that they can do, then you’re going to have to take whatever result comes anyway.”
And for Central’s two seniors — Jiles and Shena Chambers — this marks the final hurrah on their prep careers, one they hope ends in Columbus on Oct. 27.
Jiles said the season has proven to be a pleasant surprise, given the abundance of youth surrounding her. As one of only three upperclassmen on the roster, Jiles helped guide a strong group of freshmen and sophomores into prominent roles this fall. It’s a process that went much smoother than she originally anticipated.
“My freshman year I came in with a bunch of seniors who had been in the same position I was earlier in their age group. So I knew when I was going to be a senior, there was not going to be anybody left that I knew of ever playing softball with. So at the beginning of the year, I didn’t know what was going to happen,” Jiles said.
“We’re really young — two seniors, one junior and the rest underclassmen — but I guess you could say as we got the ball moving and went into our region and we started winning, one day I looked at them and I just said, ‘Y’all see those banners and you see the tradition that we’ve had in the past? It’s the main goal for us to get back to that and be the ball club that we haven’t had in a while.’ So I can say it’s been good. It’s not something I expected, honestly. But I love these girls and they mean the world to me. They’ve made my senior year I’m sure just as good as they’ve made Shena’s. So we’re excited.”