Condensed playoff brackets this year have made the state's high school sports teams have to be even more ready once the postseason begins.
There's no more No. 4 seed – or a fifth-place team that received an at-large bid – for the region champions to potentially beat up on in the first round. Instead, those games are against No. 2 seeds.
There's less time to get comfortable and find a rhythm, but the North Augusta softball team doesn't mind one bit. The Yellow Jackets on Saturday treated visiting May River like one of those No. 4 seeds from previous years, battering the Sharks 10-0 in five innings at Riverview Park to open the Class AAAA playoffs.
They followed that up with a 4-0 win Monday over Darlington, Region 6-AAAA's top seed, and will host the Lower State District 4 championship Friday at Riverview Park. Darlington and May River will play an elimination game Wednesday, and the winner will have to beat North Augusta twice.
"We like it better. We were actually talking about that at the beginning," said North Augusta head coach Craig Gilstrap on Saturday. "It's so much more fun getting right to it right away. I like it. I wish we could keep it like this, but I know it's better when more teams have a chance to play in it. It's just fun going into it right away."
The Yellow Jackets (23-2), winners of another Region 5-AAAA championship, started slow before burying May River under an avalanche of runs, hits, stolen bases and strikeouts.
Lots of strikeouts, and that didn't stop Monday.
Katelyn Cochran turned in another overpowering outing, striking out 14 batters while allowing only one hit and walking one as hitter after hitter simply couldn't catch up to her pitches. She followed that up by tossing another one-hitter against Darlington, again walking just one while striking out nine in seven innings.
North Augusta led 1-0 after one inning but left two runners in scoring position – Gilstrap blamed himself for his decision to send a runner and said he ran his team out of the inning.
That one run was more than enough for Cochran, but the Jackets added nine more just in case.
All it took was one trip through the order for North Augusta to find a rhythm. Gilstrap thought his hitters were trying to make too much happen early, then found success with easier and more controlled swings.
North Augusta pounded out 11 hits, with eight different players recording at least one. Annabel Hurst went 3-for-3 with two RBI, Emma Shiver was 2-for-2 and Madi Shiver blasted a three-run home run in the bottom of the fourth for a 9-0 lead.
Shiver nearly hit one out to left field but settled for a double during a five-run third inning. Hurst drove in Tori Pinner with a single, and Reilly Howell's RBI double made it 6-0.
Usry's homer and a bases-loaded walk in the fourth put the Jackets on the verge of an early finish, and Cochran came through in the top of the fifth.
Hurst, Pinner and Haidyn Hutto each went 2-for-3 against Darlington for six of the Jackets' seven hits. Hurst had a double and Hutto homered in support of Cochran, who now has 238 strikeouts in 106 innings pitched this season with a 0.59 ERA to go along with a 16-2 record.
That doesn't require much run support, but the Jackets have a deep lineup with no easy outs. Gilstrap said they struggled with pop-ups in games Monday and Tuesday, so they spent the rest of the week working on dialing in their swings.
Up next is the Lower State District 4 championship Friday where the Jackets have more than just home field advantage. They'll just need one win to reach the Lower State championship series, which is the type of high-stakes game the Jackets like to play – and the type they spent all season preparing for.
"We played everybody we could play just to get ready for this," Gilstrap said. "We played in three tournaments. We tried to play a bunch of 5A teams. I wanted our girls to be playoff-ready when we got here and this not be the first time they were in a big game. I think it prepared them, and we played pretty good today."