By Steve Carter

TIFTON -- A year after qualifying for the state tournament for the first time, the 2003 Tift County Lady Devils softball team will return to the south fast-pitch state sectionals today at Valdosta's Freedom Park.

Tift will open play against the Henry County Lady Warhawks at 4 p.m. A win would put the Lady Devils in a winner's bracket game against the winner of Wayne County-Lovejoy at 8 p.m. A Lady Devil loss would put Tift in a loser's bracket contest at 10 a.m. Saturday against the loser of the Wayne-Lovejoy contest.

Lady Devil head coach Ivey Vickers feels like her team, "will have a chance, if we play smart. We need to play good defense. We need to stay ahead of the count when we are pitching and when we are hitting. And when we get runners on, we need to move them and get the hits to score them."

Offense will be important against Henry County, according to Vickers.

"From what I have been told, they have two really good pitchers. But, that's natural for that part of the state," said Vickers. "They are a typical Atlanta team that has been playing fast-pitch for a long time."

Last season, Tift opened up with McIntosh from that region and were defeated by a 1-0 score. Tift then defeated Groves, 8-2, before falling to Lowndes, 3-2.

One of the Henry pitchers is Amber Harrell. During the Area 2-AAAAA tournament, Harrell pitched in two games, striking out 18, walking five and giving up seven hits.

This season Harrell has thrown five no-hitters, including back-to-back games against Westside (Macon) and Luella. She also pitched three no-hitters in two days during a tournament in Brunswick.

"Everyone up there says that they are surprised that Henry is a No. 3 team. They all expected them to finish higher in that region," said Vickers.

"But, anyone from here on out is going to be good. There are only 32 teams left and they are all good teams."

Tift has played up-and-down softball during the latter part of the season. The Lady Devils are 16-5 overall, but have had problems getting runners in to score in some games. However, in the 12-1 win over Lee County that clinched the No. 2 spot in Region 1-AAAAA, the Lady Devils played well and got several big run-scoring hits.

"How well we do is going to depend on which team shows up. We have been a Jekyl-and-Hyde team lately," said Vickers.

"I told the team that a lot of teams are sitting at home right now and would love to have this chance. I hope they realize that they have a great chance here."

If the Lady Devils can win three straight games or lose one and win four this weekend, they will qualify for the state finals tournament to be held in Columbus next weekend.

"I would love to go back to Columbus. If we play like we are capable of, we have a chance," said Vickers.

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