Wildcats dominate Canes to win Bartow County Championships

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Saturday's rematch between Woodland and Cartersville in the title game of the Bartow County Championships marked the 10th game for each program since the teams first met Aug. 16.

The second meeting showcased just how much things have changed for both teams in the time since that 4-3 triumph for the Canes.

The Wildcats have clearly improved leaps and bounds in the two-week span, and they proved it in an 11-3, five-inning victory for their ninth win in those 10 games.

"They're a much better team this time around," Cartersville head coach Shannon Suarez said of the Wildcats. "They had great at bats. They swung early in the counts that were preferential to them. They made it hurt, because they hit strikes hard. They got in the gap a lot of times. ... They capitalized on our mistakes."

Cartersville, on the other hand, has gone just 4-6 since the rivalry win with Saturday's eight-run defeat another unwelcome sight, especially with five of the Canes' six remaining Region 5-AAAA games coming on the road.

"We're just lacking on both sides of the ball right now," Suarez said. "We're not playing up to our full potential. ... A side that I don't even want to address, but the lack of hustle and effort is hurting us right now. We just have to come together and regroup for the second time through our region. Try to be better and not let laziness and physical and mental mistakes hurt us and cost us games."

To be clear, Woodland (10-5) dominated from the get-go Saturday at Hamilton Crossing.

Ansley Evans led off the game with a sharp single to center off Cartersville starter Colbi Ballard, who pitched a complete-game shutout in a semifinal win over Cass. Evans generally hits in the No. 3 spot, but the Wildcats had a pair of starters out for the game, leading to a lineup reshuffling that went as smoothly as possible.

Caroline Higdon was the main beneficiary. Moved one notch up in order from the cleanup spot she occupied during Friday's victory over Adairsville, Higdon had a monster game. She finished 3-for-4 with two runs scored and five RBI.

Higdon smacked a two-run homer to right-center field to bring home Evans, who scored three times, and give the Wildcats a quick lead they would not relinquish.

Kendyl Hardin made it a three-run first inning when she singled home Jordan Duck, who had singled herself. Ballard managed to strand the bases loaded, but she couldn't escape the second inning.

Evans again led the off the frame, reaching on an error to open the floodgates. She scored on Morgan Cooper's triple, Higdon followed with an RBI single and Duck picked up her second hit to force a pitching change.

AnnaKate McElhaney came on in relief and promptly recorded back-to-back strikeouts. However, two walks sandwiched around Allyssa Motes' key, two-run single gave Woodland a comfortable 7-0 lead.

Cartersville (7-7) mounted its only real challenge against Woodland ace Sarah Baynard in the top of the third.

Hope Short doubled home the Canes' first run, and Presley Edwards came through with a two-RBI hit to pull Cartersville within 7-3. A couple of errors gave the Canes a helping hand in the frame, as well.

Despite having the leadoff batter reach in every inning, Cartersville couldn't muster any runs outside of that three-run third.

Part of that credit goes to the defense ...

"Had a lot of good defensive plays to get out of a couple of innings," Woodland head coach Colman Roberts said. "Cooper made a diving catch and doubled [off] that girl at first. Just all-around good."

A lot of it goes to Baynard ...

"It all starts in the circle," Roberts said.

It was the offense, though, that made sure Baynard didn't need to throw more than the 72 pitches she tossed over her five innings.

Higdon singled home two more runs in the bottom of the fourth to extend the Woodland lead to 9-3. The final two runs — Cooper in the fourth and Hannah Miller in the fifth — each came on passed balls with the latter serving as a walk-off winner.

"It means a lot, because last year we were at Georgia Highlands and we lost to Adairsville on Friday night and lost to Cartersville on that Saturday morning," Roberts said of winning the tournament. "We've been talking about it, and we definitely had it written on the calendar. This wasn't to come out here and play around; we came out here to play."

At this point of the season, few teams in the area are playing as well as the Wildcats. It would have been hard to say that a few weeks ago when the team struggled to close out games, including the loss to Cartersville.

Some solid Region 7-AAAAA wins and a good showing in Allatoona's Buccaneer Bash has changed Woodland's fortunes. It has Roberts and his team, which sits third in the region, eyeing a postseason berth as they near the midway point of the league schedule.

"We were 1-4, and a lot of people kind of panicked a little bit," Roberts said. "Our kids didn't. We've won nine out of 10, and we're the playing the best that we've played in a while. I'm very proud of them.

"We always start playing well in that Buccaneer tournament. For some reason, I have no answer to that. I'm proud of them, and we've got two big region games Wednesday and Thursday, trying to climb up the standings. We want to finish first or second, so we're automatically in and won't even play in the region tournament. That's our goal."

The Canes also in a playoff spot, for the moment. With six of the team's 12 region games remaining, every contest is magnified — none more so than Tuesday's game at Cedartown, which currently sits right behind Cartersville in the standings.

"It's going to be a huge game to swing us either way from fourth to sixth place," Suarez said. "... We need to come out Tuesday back in form to play a smart, fundamental softball game."