Tift County softball achieves milestone

Alaina Stephens (shown hitting earlier this season) scored all three runs for Tift County Friday at the Watermelon Invitational. Tift won both games by shutout.

TIFTON — The Tift County Lady Devils softball team did something Friday that had not been done in quite some time. They swept their Watermelon Invitational games for a 4-3 overall record. It is the first winning record in high school for any of the squad’s current players.

Head coach Taylor Barber thought his players had that in the backs of their minds, but made sure to bring it up following their 1-0 victory over Lanier County. Earlier that day, the Lady Devils edged East Laurens by a 2-0 score. This allowed them to not only sweep the week, but do so with three straight shutouts; Tift defeated Coffee last Monday, 5-0. The week might have gone even better, but a game against Worth County was rained out before it ever began.

Abi Sumner and Paige Hill were in the circle Friday in Cordele and they combined to give up five hits and strike out 12.

“We pitched extremely well,” he said.

East Laurens was Sumner’s first start of the season following an arm injury. Barber said he initially planned on limiting her to 60 pitches, but Sumner said she felt well and he allowed her to continue.

Tift scored a single run in the first inning and another in the third. Sumner singled home Alaina Stephens first the first run of the day. Another battled ball by Sumner resulted in an error and Stephens scored again.

In the nightcap against Lanier County’s Lady Bulldogs, Hill was nearly untouchable.

“She commanded the strike zone,” said Barber.

Lanier did not have its first baserunner until two outs in the bottom of the fifth inning, which was on a walk. A single followed. With his team clinging to a narrow 1-0 advantage, Barber opted to walk the next Lady Bulldog to set up a force out at every base. What followed was “Their four-hole hitter hits a hot shot at (Niambi) Battle.”

Battle backhanded the ball and stepped on third base to end the game. Barber said she had a good week on the field. “Defensively, she was absolutely lights out all week.”

Tift did not score until the sixth against Lanier. Stephens earned a two-out walk and Josie Bullington drove her in with a double. He said the two had been a good 1-2 combo in the middle of the lineup.

The season is setting up to be quite a revelation for local softball players and fans. With mostly young lineups, Tift County’s last three seasons ended with six, seven and six wins, respectively. In all three, they started 0-5 or worse. An 18-9 mark in 2015 was their last winning season.

Barber credits his players for the work they have put into their game. After falling to 1-3 in a shutout loss Aug. 10, he said many Lady Devils came out to the field Sunday for extra practice.

They will be tested big-time this week. Tift goes to Crisp County Tuesday. Thursday, they will open up the Region 1-AAAAAAA portion of their schedule at Lowndes. According to records on MaxPreps, the Vikettes have not long a region game in three seasons.

Barber said they will take it first things first with Crisp. The goal in mind is simple. “Our job is to go out there and play the way we play,” he said.

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