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Dominant Jackets ready for state title chase in softball

NA Katelyn Cochran

North Augusta's Katelyn Cochran is the ace in the circle for the Jackets' top-seeded softball team, and she's also hitting .308 in a lineup loaded with lethal bats.

The time is now for the North Augusta softball team.

The Yellow Jackets, winners of 20 consecutive games and owners of a 24-1 overall record, are once again a No. 1 seed in Class AAAA heading into the South Carolina High School League playoffs.

They'll host at-large selection Hilton Head Island on Wednesday, and they're again one of the favorites - if not the favorite - to win a state championship that has long eluded them.

This year's team, led by six seniors, has been on a mission all season long, and the Jackets are using the sting from last year's playoff loss for fuel to make sure it doesn't happen again.

"I think it started last year when Darlington beat us twice when they were juniors. I think they went, 'I don't want it to end like that,'" said head coach Craig Gilstrap. "I think they came in this year determined that we were going to win the games we were supposed to, take care of business, get better at the things we were struggling on, find ways to win games, limit as many mental errors and physical errors as possible. They have some determination in them."

The Jackets have been absolutely dominant this season, allowing a total of only 30 runs spread across 25 games played while scoring 221. They're holding opposing hitters to a .108 batting average while hitting .390 as a team, and they avenged their March 5 loss to Lexington by beating the Wildcats a month later.

"I'm really excited, and I feel like we have a really good chance. Our whole team is strong," said ace pitcher Katelyn Cochran, a University of Central Florida signee. "Our lineup is strong, top to bottom. We're all very strong players individually, and we work great as a team. We have great team chemistry, and I think we have really been looking forward to this moment, and it's due. It's time. So we're really excited. I think this year we're extra fired up, especially with six starting seniors, so I think that we're really fired up. We're excited."

Six different regulars are batting better than .400, led by College of Charleston signee Audri Bates at .481 to go with seven home runs and 37 RBI. Annabel Hurst is right behind her at .476, and Nevaeh Ross (.443, 33 RBI) and USC Aiken signee Kadence Adams (.414, 37 RBI) share the team lead with nine home runs. Leanne Gilbert is batting .407, and Jordan Tolen is hitting .405.

Those eye-popping numbers have been far more than enough run support for Cochran and Adams in the circle. Cochran, the reigning Aiken Standard Player of the Year, has a 16-1 record with a 1.23 ERA. She's tossed four no-hitters this season, and she's struck out 207 batters in 91 innings.

Opponents aren't getting much relief when Adams pitches - she's 8-0 with a 0.77 ERA, and she's thrown two no-hitters of her own.

Those offensive and pitching statistics are even more impressive considering North Augusta has played one of the state's most difficult schedules. Gilstrap loaded up the slate on purpose, sending them to prestigious tournaments and scrimmaging elite opposition. That's a lesson he took from when Dan Pippin was the Yellow Jackets' head football coach and would scrimmage Goose Creek because he didn't want his players' first long bus ride for a big game to be in the playoffs.

"I wanted them to already feel what it was like to play playoff teams as quick as possible so they were not in shock when we played in the playoffs," said Gilstrap. "I hope they appreciate it, and I hope it pays dividends."

Again, this isn't foreign territory for North Augusta softball. So what are the Jackets going to have to do differently this time to finally win a state title?

One thing will be to make sure those offensive numbers don't drop off severely - Gilstrap said his team has done that in the past couple of years, as if a light switch has been turned off when they most need it to be on. Another will be limiting the mistakes, like when they made eight errors in the two losses to Darlington last year after making four the entire season.

If the Jackets can take care of their hitting and make the plays they're supposed to make, the Gilstrap thinks they'll be OK. But they have to make sure they do those things.

"I think the big key is to go game by game and play as hard as we can, every game, and play for each other," Cochran said. "I think those are the keys, because we have the talent. So it's just putting the rest of the pieces together."