The Valdosta Daily Times
The last time the Valdosta State softball team didn’t win a conference championship, All-American Courtney Albritton wasn’t old enough to have a a drivers license.
Senior outfielder Morgan Johnson was still walking the halls of First Presbyterian Day in Macon, and freshman Hanna Lythberg was a freshman in high school.
This weekend, the fourth-ranked Blazers will look to become the first team in Gulf South Conference history to win five straight league championships.
“I already think we are a power; I mean we’ve won four straight,” Valdosta State coach Thomas Macera said. “But five-in-a-row has never been done before. It just shows, we graduated seven kids from last year’s team, and we still had the resilience to keep going after that and play good this year.”
The Blazers begin that quest for a fifth straight title Friday, when they open the GSC tournament in Southaven, Miss. against Christian Brothers University, a team they swept this past Sunday at Steel’s Diamond at Blazer Park.
If victorious, the Blazers will face either North Alabama, who they are just 1-3 against this season, or Delta State, who they also swept this past weekend, in the later game Friday afternoon.
The Blazers will then play again Saturday — unless upset in both games Friday — and could advance to the championship games on Sunday. A trip to the championship won’t be easy, and winning a fifth straight championship will be even tougher. But, the Blazers (37-9, 22-7) have the confidence to get the job done.
“We have to keep pitching well and play good defense and keep hitting like we are and we should be fine,” Macera said.
With the tournament a few days away, the Blazers still have a few key important items to take care of before they can leave town — finals being one of them. Along with practicing for the tournament, the Blazers are in the midst of preparing for and taking finals. They will depart for Southaven, Miss. and the GSC tournament Thursday morning, only the second official day for exams at the university.
Once through finals, the Blazers won’t be talking about records and what has happened in the past years, including Macera.
“I try to not get caught up in streaks or records,” he said. “I try to keep the girls focused on the task at-hand.”
Along with a conference championship, a lot is on the line this weekend for the Blazers. After going 4-0 this past weekend, sweeping Delta State and Christian Brothers, the Blazers could take over the top spot in the South Region rankings, released today, after North Alabama, the most recent No. 1 seed, lost all four games last weekend.
The top two seeds in the South Region host the regional tournament in softball, with the winners facing off in the Super Regional at the higher seeded team’s home stadium.
In the years following a GSC tournament championship, the Blazers have gone on to win the South Region twice, advancing to the national championship game both times, winning in 2012. Both of those years, the Blazers hosted the South Region and South Super Regional.
Heading into this weekend, the Blazers have won 12 of their last 13 games, with the only loss coming to Shorter, which isn’t eligible for the GSC tournament this year.
The Blazers also enter after sweeping the GSC weekly awards.
Morgan Johnson was clearly the most elite player on the diamond this past weekend, earning Player of the Week honors, while Lythberg was named Pitcher of the Week honors.
Johnson hit .818 with nine hits — six extra base hits — with three home runs, eight RBIs and eight runs scored. She was walked five times and finished the weekend with a slugging percentage of 1.909.
The senior capped off her impressive weekend, in her final regular season home series of her career, Sunday when she hit three home runs in the doubleheader against Christian Brothers.
“Morgan had a great weekend but, Morgan is also a great player,” Macera said. “She had been a very big part of this program since she started playing (in 2010). Morgan has done that in postseason and in the national tournament.”
The reigning GSC Commissioner’s Trophy Award Recipient, who will skip her graduation from the university Saturday to lead the Blazers in the Gulf South Conference tournament, Johnson is now fourth in the GSC in batting average (.403), second in home runs (11) — trailing teammate Courtney Albritton, fifth in runs scored (45), fourth in doubles (16) and fifth in RBIs (45).
Lythberg earned Pitcher of the Week honors after going 2-0 with a save this weekend for head coach Thomas Macera and the Blazers. Lythberg earned a win over Delta State and Christian Brothers, while also earning a save against Delta State.
The freshman from Chicago, Ill. has turned into the ace of the VSU pitching staff, as she holds a 13-3 record with two saves, 90 strikeouts and a 1.70 earned run average in 102 2/3 innings pitched. She has 11 complete games.
As for what Lythberg has to do this weekend, Macera said just focus at the task at-hand.
“Just stay focused,” he said. “It is one pitch at a time. It doesn’t matter who is in the box or who the team is. Just pitch.”
Friday and Saturday’s games will be carried live on The Jock 1150 AM in Valdosta, with Matt Malone and Marty McGhin serving as the play-by-play announcers. Sunday’s championship broadcast schedule has to be determined.