Several weeks ago, as the Northside Patriots softball team was finishing another successful regular season and gearing up for the Region 1-AAAA tournament, coach Brandon Jenkins sought a new way to motivate the defending state champions.
Jenkins, son of the late Columbus and Kendrick basketball coach Murphy Jenkins, was a center fielder for Columbus from 1995-98 and helped win two state titles under the guidance of 12-time state champion coach Bobby Howard, who now coaches Pacelli. So he asked his former coach for advice.
Howard encouraged Jenkins to tell his players that they aren’t defending a state championship; they are pursuing the next one.
That’s what he did — and Northside romped to their fourth straight region title, commanding Carver, Columbus and Cairo by a combined score of 33-3.
Now, the Patriots (20-9) are set to host the Woodward Academy War Eagles (5-18) from College Park in the first round of the Class AAAA state playoffs. The best-of-three series, moved one day earlier to avoid the predicted bad weather from Hurricane Michael, will begin with a doubleheader Tuesday, starting at 5 p.m. Game 3, if necessary hasn’t been scheduled, but might be played as soon as Wednesday morning or as late as Friday, depending on the weather.
Northside senior captain Gabi Apiag described the power of Jenkins’ pep talk
“It made us want to win again,” she said. “We’re not defending it now; we’re going after it. We’re living what we did last year, but we want to keep living it, keep living that dream.”
Although the Patriots had seven of their starters, including five seniors, return from last season, this team had to find a different way to win. Instead of relying on one dominant pitcher as they did in 2017 with North Carolina signee Hannah George, the Patriots have used a deeper pitching staff, led by juniors Ireland Cavanaugh (7-2, 1.82, 61 innings), Raelee Weaver (3-4, 2.77, 30 innings) and Riley Ingram (7-0, 0.58, 24 innings).
“Our defense is the key,” Apiag said. “We back up our pitchers. Last year, we had a lights-out pitcher. This year, we pitch to contact. Now, our defense works for it.”
Jenkins praised the way the Patriots have worked to get here, poised for a run at another state title.
“We finally, over the last two weeks, settled into our own and found an identity for this year’s team,” Jenkins said. “We’re a lot more focused and a lot more comfortable in that tournament setting. That’s where the four years takes over. There’s not another team in the state of Georgia that’s as battle-tested as we are.”
But, again recalling that advice from his former coach, Jenkins is emphasizing this message to his players:
“Nobody cares that you won the state championship last year,” he said. “All that does is put a target on your back.”
Weaver and Cavanaugh will pitch Tuesday’s doubleheader, Jenkins said, although he hadn’t decided as of early Monday afternoon which one will start Game 1.
Northside’s leading hitters have been Weaver (.474, 20 RBI), senior Kennedi Bedell (.398, 10 RBI, 19 SB) and junior Mary Beth Cahalan (.375, 10 RBI).
“If we do what we need to do, it doesn’t matter who we play,” said Apiag, who has committed to sign with UAB. “Everything is going to go well if we play as a team.”
Mark Rice, 706-576-6272, @MarkRiceLE.
HIGH SCHOOL CHEERLEADING
Columbus and Northside at Carrollton, TBA
Hardaway at Tift County, 10 a.m.
HIGH SCHOOL CROSS COUNTY
MCSD meets at Kinnett Stadium, 4 p.m. and 5:15 p.m.
Columbus, Jordan and Northside at Westover Invitational, TBA
HIGH SCHOOL FOOTBALL GAMES
Columbus vs. Shaw (Kinnett Stadium), 7 p.m.
Spencer at Callaway, 7 p.m.
Westover at Carver (A.J. McClung Memorial Stadium), 7:30 p.m.
Heard County at Jordan, (Kinnett Stadium), 7:30 p.m.
Kendrick at Jackson, 7:30 p.m.
Northside at Americus-Sumter, 7:30 p.m.
Hardaway at Dougherty (Hugh Mills Stadium), 7:30 p.m.
Manchester at Brookstone, 7:30 p.m.
Calvary Christian at Lafayette Christian, 7:30 p.m.
Pelham at Chattahoochee County, 7:30 p.m.
Harris County at Veterans, 7:30 p.m.
Central-Talbotton at Marion County, 7:30 p.m.
Pacelli at Greenville, 7:30 p.m.
Lee at Central-Phenix City, 8 p.m.
Eufaula at Russell County, 8 p.m.
Smiths Station at Auburn, 8 p.m.
Tuscaloosa Academy at Glenwood, 8 p.m.
HIGH SCHOOL SOFTBALL
Class AAAA state playoffs
Columbus at Eastside, 5 p.m.
Hardaway at Hampton, 5 p.m.
Woodward Academy at Northside, 5 p.m.
HIGH SCHOOL VOLLEYBALL
Region 1-AAAA tournament at Northside, 5 p.m.
Region 1-AAAA tournament at Columbus, 5 p.m.
Region 5-AA tournament, Jordan and Spencer at Bremen, TBA