Over the past decade, there are few softball teams with the level of success that Union County has had.
11th year head coach Jessica Stewart has been the key to keeping the Union County Lady Panthers softball program consistently contending for region and state titles. Like all other coaches anywhere, Stewart is not immune to turnover, but seems to lock and load with a fresh set of players every time she loses talented seniors to graduation.
The Lady Panthers (17-12) had yet another fantastic season that saw them advance to the 3A State Sweet 16 for the seventh time in eleven years. Union County has made the state tournament each year since 2009 (eight in a row) and has notched four region titles in that span as well. The highlight of the program came in 2010 when Union appeared and lost in the Championship game to #1-ranked Buford. The Lady Panthers are almost always among the top-10 ranked teams in the state, appearing as high as number nine this year.
Entering this season, however, Stewart knew that the girls would be facing a new challenge: playing in a new region and higher classification than in years past. The Lady Panthers experienced some growing pains in the process, dropping its first two region games and starting out the season just 2-6.
“I was impressed with us to getting to the Sweet 16 in our first year in AAA,” states coach Stewart. “It was more difficult than we expected. Better region, better pitching, obviously better hitting.”
An August 25 8-0 win at Fannin County seemed to right the ship for Union. Although falling to state-ranked #2 Chestatee in extra innings that weekend, the girls rebounded with a tough win over Habersham Central that same Saturday afternoon, the first of eight straight wins.
“Laken Chambers was out the first of the season,” explains Stewart. “That hurt us…she’s a senior, a leader, so that effected us early on. We also lost a bunch of one-run games and finally started finishing on the right side of those.”
The Lady Panthers closed the regular season as the region’s third seed. In the GHSA opening round of the state playoffs, they rolled through Lovett despite having to travel, winning easily 9-3 and 17-0.
Southeast Bulloch wound up besting the girls in the Sweet 16, although both games were dramatic, extra-inning heartbreakers for Union. SE Bulloch took game one 9-8 in 8 innings, while the next one went 9 frames and ended with the Lady Panthers on the wrong side of a 6-3 ballgame, ending their season.
Senior pitcher Chambers led the Lady Panthers, as she has consistently for the past four years. Her numbers, although down from the past two seasons, were very impressive. Chambers was walked often, limiting her damage she could do at the plate. She still finished with a .362 average, 2 homers and 19 RBI. In the circle, she was 15-7 overall with a 1.45 ERA, striking out 130 hitters.
Union must find a way to re-tool without its mainstay pitcher and losing talented hitters in Kendra Tanner and Lydia Arrowood. Although that presents some big shoes to fill, it shouldn’t be an issue for a program that practically grows talented softball players on an annual basis.