By Donald Heath
Special for the Effingham Herald
SPRINGFIELD — Effingham County first-year softball coach Brad Thompson calls the pressure that goes along with repeating a region championship “a privilege”.
“If there wasn’t any pressure, people would procrastinate all the time,” Thompson said. “We talked about that from Day 1, that we can’t procrastinate. The target is on us.”
Thompson and his Rebels have been privileged to wear the Region 2-AAAAAA crown for four of the last five years.
But a couple of newcomers in the region, including 2021 Region 3 champion Evans and 21-win Grovetown, and a familiar foe down the road will be swinging to unseat the Rebels.
Thompson, who directed Vidalia to 15 state appearances in 16 seasons, shrugs off the pressure.
“I’ve learned that championships are hard to come by,” he said. “We’re not focusing on beating one particular team. We’re going to focus on beating everybody.”
ECHS (18-8 last season) learned a lesson in resilience while claiming the 2021 region title. COVID-19 hit the team in the early going and the short-handed Rebels lost four of their first five games, including a 9-1 mercy-rule beating from rival South Effingham.
But the Rebels came back, winning 17 of 19 games at one point. They handed the Mustangs their only regular-season region loss, 2-1 in eight innings, and rallied as a No. 3 seed in the region tournament to beat Glynn Academy in extra innings and, 24 hours later, beat Richmond Hill on an extra wet day.
“I like what we have here,” Thompson said. “Our senior leadership is outstanding. It’s been a pleasure watching them work together. I think they learned a lot about themselves last year.”
Senior pitcher Rylee Mills, the region’s most valuable player last season, is among the team leaders. The righthander posted a 1.32 earned run average on the mound and had one of the key bats in the lineup, hitting .340 from the lead-off position.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever had a player quite like her,” Thompson said. “She is exactly what you want as a new head coach coming in a new area. She’s been so supportive, so coachable. … With Rylee, you tell her one time and that’s the way it’s going to be done.”
Mills has some support. First baseman Caleigh Eubanks and third baseman Emma Reynolds are back after earning first-team, all-region honors, and pitcher/outfielder Ava Wingate, shortstop Olivia Morgan, second baseman Megan Coleman and outfielders Morgan Coleman and Shelby Aiken made second-team all-region.
Catcher Lauryn Wilson, who hits with power, might be one of the most underrated players in the region.
Tisha Holland, Sarah Hinely, Grace Pritchard,
Xylia Hannon and talented freshmen Ansleigh Giordano, Gracie LeFleur and Gabbie Hill have been pushing for playing time.
“Nothing is set in stone,” Thompson said. “The girls have done exactly what I asked from them this summer — make it hard on me. We’re still looking for the right nine.”
ECHS opens the softball season Saturday (Aug. 6) with games against Greenbrier and Pace Academy in a tournament at Greenbrier High School.