CHULA - Experts in the game of fastpitch softball will tell you that the success or failure of the team often hinges on the performance of the pitcher.

The Tiftarea Academy Lady Panthers softball team has been fortunate to have had at least one good hurler during the past four seasons as they have racked up an impressive four consecutive region championships to go along with two GISA AA state titles.

This season senior pitcher Jennifer Cone has led the Panthers back to the top of the Region 3-AA tier and a number-one seed in the first round of the AA state playoffs.

"Anyone who knows and watches the game knows that's where it all starts," said Tiftarea head softball coach Darby Veazey on the role of the fastpitch pitcher. Veazey is quick to point out, however, that pitching is not all there is to it.

"Jennifer would agree with this. You've got to have a good defense behind you and you've got to be able to score runs," said Veazey. "But without good pitching, it makes everything else twice as hard.

Cone has all 21 of the Lady Panthers wins, including the extra one-game 2-0 playoff win over the Southwest Georgia Academy Lady Warriors played Wednesday in Valdosta.

She was the Lady Panthers starting pitcher last season after coming over from Tift County High School.

Cone says that softball and Veazey were the main reasons for making the switch.

"Softball was the main reason," Cone said during a recent interview, "and I had played under Darby on different teams all of my life. I guess I just felt more comfortable playing under Darby.

"She (Darby) wanted me to come out here, but there was no pressure. She left it up to me and we hoped that it would work out."

So far so good as Cone led the Lady Panthers to their third region title last season and then the fourth crown against SGA Wednesday. The only blemish on the record is a third place finish in last year's GISA AA state championship tournament. There is hope that can be remedied in the next two Saturdays.

"After the Sweet 16 last year, we felt like we'd do it again," said Cone referring to the consecutive state titles won by the Lady Panthers in 2002 and 2003. "But I wasn't pitching my best and we made some mistakes. I guess we started celebrating too early."

Both Cone and Veazey feel that there is a renewed confidence as the team heads into postseason play.

"Confidence is the area where Jennifer has improved the most," said Veazey. "She has built that confidence through repetition, playing travel ball and throughout our season.

"The difference in Jennifer as a pitcher today is like night and day compared to a year ago."

"Everything is better," said Cone. "My pitching has improved and my hitting has improved. I definitely feel more confident."

Cone is currently batting .429 with an on-base percentage of .549. And with another state title on the line, Cone is taking nothing for granted.

"I'm going to be more focused," she said. "I'm not going to assume anything."

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