Top seeds: Northwest Whitfield (North), River Ridge (South)
Top seed: Ringgold
Top seed: Calhoun
Top seeds: Gordon Lee (West), Mount Pisgah (East)
RINGGOLD, Ga. - Rachel Hodge can smile now at the memory of that early-season softball game in her freshman season at Ringgold High School. Nervous and unsure of herself against rival Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe, the current Ringgold coach did not have a good day.
"I played third base and made about 15 errors in the Lakeview game, so I played outfield the rest of my career," she said, laughing. "It's tough to play as a freshman at this level."
She recovered nicely, helping lead the Lady Tigers to a state championship before going on to play collegiately. That long-ago day, however, gives her a unique perspective when she watches her own freshmen thriving as key parts of a team that begins play Monday in the Region 5-AAA tournament as the top seed and prohibitive favorite.
Three freshmen start for the 21-5 Lady Tigers: outfielder/pitcher Abby McKinney, outfielder Taylor Chadwick and shortstop Aimee Davidson. On a team that graduated several stars from last season's state tournament team, the three have been more than just fill-ins.
The same can be said of Catoosa County rival Heritage, where coach Steve Chattin has an abundance of freshman talent. Nine first-year players dot the roster, with three regularly starting. Outfielder and leadoff hitter Olivia Tamewitz leads the team with a .518 average and has scored 32 runs with 29 stolen bases. Taylor Moran has produced at the plate with a .425 average and in the circle with a 10-1 record. Second baseman Hannah Mills has solidified the infield.
"They are an integral part of our team," said Chattin, whose third-ranked team is seeded second to No. 1-ranked Northwest Whitfield in the 7-AAAA tournament, which opens play today in Dalton. "This is our largest and most talented group of freshmen, and more would likely be starting if not for having five seniors."
Even two-time reigning Class A champion Gordon Lee, the top seed in the Region 6-A tournament, has gotten a boost from two freshmen this year. Courtland Middleton has boosted a lineup hit hard by graduation with a .345 average, while Emily Armour has been strong as the No. 2 pitcher with a 9-0 record and a 0.39 earned run average.
Area coaches aren't afraid to play freshmen because of the level of competition most play against in the summer.
"We are so lucky here in Catoosa County to have such great recreational leagues and travel programs, and the girls come to us very prepared," Hodge said. "It's not easy. It takes a lot for a 14-year-old to be able to play against 18-year-olds. Coming from 14-under travel ball, the girls have to suddenly adjust to playing 43 feet (pitching distance), so it's really tough, especially on the pitchers."
Another key, according to veteran coach Chattin, is the acceptance the freshmen have earned from the upperclassmen.
"Even though they are obviously talented, sometimes it's touch to prove to their teammates that they are talented enough to play," Chattin said. "It's helped that our young girls have been working out and playing with our select program for years, so it was easier for the upperclassmen to not see them as freshmen.
"At this time of the year, they really aren't freshmen anymore, anyway."