Lady Panthers play Bethlehem in Monday quarterfinals

Madi Hartsfield makes a diving stop for Tiftarea Academy against Southland Thursday. Head coach Chance Benson praised his team’s defense duing the series.

TIFTON — The Georgia Independent School Association Class AAA playoffs resume Monday afternoon for the Tiftarea Academy Lady Panthers.

Tiftarea will trek to Bethlehem Christian for a quarterfinals doubleheader that begins at noon. The winner will advance to Wednesday’s final four against either Bulloch Academy or John Milledge Academy. Brackets move fast in the GISA. The state championship series will be Saturday at Mercer University.

Head coach Chance Benson’s Lady Panthers are here after sweeping Southland Academy in the first round Thursday. Though next week could be quite hectic, Tiftarea has, for a moment, caught a break in scheduling.

The potential of rain moved the Southland series from last Tuesday to Thursday. Bethlehem Christian was supposed to be played Saturday, but news of more rain pushed it back as well.

That’s fine for Benson, whose players are traveling up to Barrow County today. It gives him time to be with family, and to squeeze in some extra practice.

The softball field at Bethlehem will provide an interesting challenge. It is also the school’s baseball field, Benson said. He is having the Lady Panthers practice on Tiftarea’s baseball field today to get them used to potential challenges, such as grass on the infield. There will be temporary fences to make the outfield dimensions shorter.

This is the first time Tiftarea has played Bethlehem Christian in softball. The Panthers did play a state tournament baseball series there in 2015, falling in three games in the state quarterfinals.

Bethlehem Christian won Region 1-AAA, giving them a first round bye. Their schedule, however, is comparable to Tiftarea’s. Both teams have played Brentwood and John Milledge Academy.

“They’ll be a good opponent,” said Benson.

Brentwood won over Bethlehem 8-0, Tiftarea fell to them 8-2. John Milledge swept the Lady Lions 7-3 and 15-8. Tiftarea dropped region games to John Milledge 2-1 and 6-1. John Milledge’s coaches told Benson they believed the Lady Panthers match up well with Bethlehem.

Tiftarea does have an advantage in experience. Bethlehem Christian revived its program only last year. They played in the Georgia Independent Christian Athletic Association (GICAA) for the past two seasons and won a state championship this spring.

The Lady Lions carried that success over into the fall and took Region 1 with a 3-1 record, clinching the championship Oct. 3 with a 7-3 victory over Heritage of Newnan. They have not played since then.

Thursday’s Southland series went to the Lady Panthers with relative ease — 5-2 and 9-0 — though there were hiccups early.

“We started off a little nervous,” Benson said. “We dropped two pop-ups.”

Both teams scored twice in the first inning. Tiftarea re-took the lead in the third on a Sara Kate Lupo single that drove in Elli Bryan. Southland didn’t score again the rest of the afternoon.

Ali Strenth, moved up in the batting order because of a recent hot streak, came through with a clutch two-out double in the fifth inning. Bryan and McKenna McCard scored two big insurance runs.

McCard pitched a complete game, striking out eight. She also earned the win in the second game with four one-hit innings, but hardly did so alone. “Our defense came to play,” said Benson of the nightcap. Lupo pitched the final inning.

Tiftarea scored eight second inning runs after a one-run first. The contest ended after five frames because of the mercy rule. Bryan and Strenth drove in two runs each. McCard, Pyper McCard and Laura Ann Jones all had a single RBI.

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