TIFTON — New Tiftarea Academy softball head coach Chance Benson and the Lady Panthers dove into the 2019 season headfirst Friday, playing their first three regular season games at Dublin’s Trinity Christian school.

The tripleheader turned into a nice start for the Lady Panthers. They won their first game by the run rule over host Trinity Christian (14-0) and sliced Southland Academy (7-1) before dropping the finale to Sandersville-based Brentwood (8-2).

“We played three really good teams,” said Benson, who had two years as Tiftarea’s head baseball coach before accepting double duty on the school’s other diamond. “They’re starting to gain that confidence.”

“Our girls held their own.”

The Lady Panthers will play their first regular season home game Thursday at 6 p.m. against Citizens Christian Academy. CCA is coming off a strong 2018 which saw them make the final four in the Georgia Independent Christian Athletic Association (GICAA) state playoffs.

Tiftarea has the rare softball luxury of three pitchers and Benson said he wanted to give all of them a chance to start Friday. Sara-Kate Lupo pitched the Trinity game, allowing two hits and striking out six in four innings before the mercy rule took effect. She only threw 47 pitches and walked none.

“I wish Sara-Kate could have pitched more,” he said.

McKenna McCard threw innings in the second game. She fanned 11 and ceded only a single base-knock. Pyper McCard pitched the seventh against Southland before starting against Brentwood. Though the younger McCard did not pick up a win, there was plenty to please Benson. Over the two appearances, she struck out four and walked three. These were also her first pitching appearances in a varsity game; Pyper McCard is only in eighth grade.

“I’d put our three pitchers against anyone in the state,” said Benson.

The Trinity game started with quite a bang, Tiftarea scoring nine runs in the first inning.

Elli Bryan doubled for the Lady Panthers’ first hit of the season. She was followed by an RBI double from Lupo, which brought McKenna McCard to the plate. She cleared the fence with a home run to centerfield.

By the end of the inning, Sarabeth Royal stole home, a double steal that saw Madi Hartsfield score on an error on a continuation of the same play. Laura Ann Jones, Ali Strenth, Grace Odom and Morgan McCay also scored in the frame and 11 different players on the roster ultimately came home during the game.

McKenna McCard drove in three runs. McCay, Bryan and Lupo each knocked in two.

A four-run fourth was the biggest inning for Tiftarea against Southland. The big blow in that frame was a Strenth double with the bases loaded that scored everybody. She had four RBIs for the game.

Tiftarea tied Brentwood 2-2 in the third behind Bryan’s two-run double that brought in Odom and Royal before the Lady War Eagles struck for five tallies over the next two innings.

Over the three games, Bryan, Lupo, Laura Ann Jones and McKenna McCard had four hits each. Strenth led with five RBIs, McKenna McCard and Bryan each producing four. Jones scored four times.

Everyone figured into the three games in Dublin and the players represent a mix of all grades.

Pyper McCard and Elaine Mercer are eighth graders. Bryan, Strenth, Odom, Caroline Heard and Mackenzie Matthews are freshmen. Three of them — Bryan, Strenth and Odom — started the majority of Tiftarea’s games as eighth graders.

Sophomores are Laura Ann Jones, Anslee Jones and Hartsfield. Royal and McKenna McCard are the junior duo and Benson has just two seniors, McCay and Lupo.

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