For some teams, region championships are hard to come by. For others, like Emanuel County Institute, it’s an expectation that continues to be met year in and year out. The ECI Lady Dawgs recently brought home their fifth region fastpitch title since 2015. Today, the team sits at 22–3 on the year and is looking forward to competing in the playoffs, which start Wednesday.
Head coach Frank Wimberly has been at the helm of the ECI softball program for several years now, and he says the team’s tradition of success isn’t by chance but rather by design when scheduling and buy-in from the players.
“We generally begin our season with out of region competition. Year after year, we build a strong, out of region schedule to prepare us for tough region and state playoff matchups,” Wimberly said. “In these contests, we have played three Class AA schools, four AAA schools, one 5-A school, and one 6-A school. We have one region game left, but so far, we’ve gone 12-1 in the region.”
In years past, the Lady Dawgs have seen pitching and defense be the staple of the program. This season, however, is a different story as Wimberly and his fellow coaches have honed in on the offense.
“We focused on creating more quality at-bats and doing the little things offensively. As a result, our hitters have become tougher outs while cutting our strikeouts down tremendously, which puts more pressure on defenses.”
He continued, explaining that this year’s team has unmatched chemistry, which is equally, if not even more, important.
“We have a true team atmosphere. Even though we have competition within and players beating one another out for positions, the girls still celebrate each other’s success. This positive team culture makes winning much more fun.”
This year’s squad, similar to teams that came before, is laced with talent, and that talent works hard every day. All of those factors—being battle-tested, the ability to put up runs no matter what, meshing well, possessing the skills necessary to win, and wanting to win—puts ECI in a prime position to finally seal the deal in Columbus with a state title, which is something the program has been inching closer to each season.
“We have a talented group. What drives this group is competition within. Wanting to be on the field and wanting to win keeps this group hungry. I haven’t seen a single player or a vibe within the program that is ready to hang their hat on what we have done,” Wimberly continued. “Being a small school, it is often hard to collect enough talent on one team where every person is being pushed by someone behind them. This creates a sense of urgency within each player to do their best each and everyday to where they don’t care about what they did a month or week ago. I believe this is what we have at ECI and has been the most significant factor in our team’s success this season.”
Be that as it may, there was a turning point this season. That may seem strange with a record that reflects 22 wins and only 3 losses, but it’s true. The 2021 team, according to its coach, got “caught off guard” playing Screven County, a quality program in a slightly larger classification, the second go ‘round.
“We weren’t mentally prepared for a game against a very good team. We run-ruled them at our place in the first match-up, and I think we were distracted and overlooked them the second time around. We lost 8-1 at their place, but I definitely think more good came from that than bad. It kind of reset us. It had been nearly a year since someone beat us like that, and I think we needed that thunderbolt for us to refocus on what is in front of us.”
Since then, the Lady Dawgs have gone 4-0, run-ruled last year’s region champ, and clinched a region championship themselves, proving that a little adversity can go a long way as evidenced by the region title win at home in Twin City on September 30 when ECI took down Claxton.
“Now the focus is on Columbus. We look at the playoffs as a new season. It doesn’t matter what you’ve done for the previous 30 games; you have to be as hungry as you were when the season started. The plan is always to get our players to focus on our new goal, a state championship. We have a core of players that have been to Columbus twice in their careers, and I feel confident they understand what it takes to get there and compete for a state title.”
On this year’s team are seniors Semya Williams and Macy Canady; juniors Charla Clifton, Kelsey Harper, Shayla Stephenson, Sullee Boddiford, Lily Robertson, Kaylan Lamb, Ally Taylor, and Karly Olliff; sophomores Jarei Oglesby and Asia Gibbons; and freshmen Jayna Kearson, Kinley Grimes, Kayanna Thompson, Natalee Brown, Maddie Funderburke, Dayla Bethea, and Abbey Marsh.
They will take on Pataula Charter Academy Wednesday in the first round as the 14-6 Lady Panthers travel to Twin City. First pitch of the doubleheader is set for 3 p.m. Should a third game be necessary, it will be played Thursday at 3 p.m.