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Lambert defeats Northview to win back-to-back region titles
NorthviewLambert softball web
Lambert senior pitcher Audrey Merrill winds up for a pitch Tuesday against Northview. - photo by Micah Green

How they got here

Lambert started region play 12-0 before falling, 2-1, to South on Sept. 23. Some memorable moments in between:

— A 9-8 road win over West Forsyth on Aug. 19, in which the Lady Longhorns led, 9-2, going in to the bottom of the seventh. West plated six runs and had the tying run on third base, but Marissa Guimbarda — who Youngblood stuck with despite trouble — stranded the tying run on second. Guimbarda hit a two-run home run in the sixth that, at the time, added insult to injury, but it would prove to be a crucial cushion.

— Lambert tagged South pitcher Katherine Huey for two runs in the first and four runs in the third and Guimbarda worked five shutout innings as the Lady Longhorns run-ruled the Lady War Eagles at home on Aug. 21. It was South’s largest margin of defeat all season.

— The visiting Lady Longhorns trailed Northview, 3-2, with just three outs left on Sept. 5, but Lambert slugged back-to-back solo home runs in the seventh to take the lead and escape with a 4-3 win.

— Guimbarda threw a complete-game, three-hit shutout and Savannah Huffstetler homered in a 2-0 home win over North Forsyth on Sept. 9.

State Playoffs open Wednesday

By virtue of the Region 6-AAAAAA championship, Lambert is guaranteed to host its first- and second-round playoff games. The Lady Longhorns will welcome the No. 4 seed out of Region 5-AAAAAA to Suwanee on Wednesday, Oct. 15 — likely either Cherokee (19-10 overall) or Etowah (12-13 overall).

Youngblood and his coaching staff plan on scouting the Region 5 tournament Wednesday evening before closing out the regular season at North on Thursday. Lambert does not plan to rest any starters for the regular season finale. The Lady Longhorns are riding an eight-game winning streak.

The relief was plainly evident in Lambert softball coach Brooks Youngblood’s face.

Youngblood, in his first season as head coach of the Lady Longhorns after serving as an assistant on last year’s 30-5 Region 6-AAAAAA championship team, had just watched his young team wrap up a second consecutive region title with a 6-3 win over Northview on Tuesday.

Lambert (23-2, 16-1 Region 6-AAAAAA) celebrated modestly before moving on to Senior Night festivities that honored the Lady Longhorns’ three seniors — Savannah Huffstetler, Macy Stovall and Audrey Merrill.

There’s more work to be done.

“I’m just glad I didn’t screw anything up in my first go around,” Youngblood said, grinning. “We had a great group of girls last year and we do again this year. I knew we had all the potential to repeat as region champions — that was expected, even — because I had the girls to do it.”

Youngblood’s team has rolled through a grueling, 18-game region schedule. Lambert’s one blemish was a 2-1 road loss to runners-up South Forsyth on Sept. 23; the Lady Longhorns have not lost since. Lambert outscored opponents 155-23 in 17 games, by far the best margin in the region.

“It’s not easy to get up for 18 region games, ones that really matter,” Youngblood said. “These region games, you have to be switched on. That’s a long season. They came out every Tuesday and Thursday ready to compete and take care of business.”

Lambert started senior Audrey Merrill in the circle instead of sophomore Marissa Guimbarda; the plan was for Merrill to pitch one time through the Northview lineup. Merrill allowed a leadoff walk to come around and score for Northview (13-9, 9-8) in the first inning but suffered no further damage in two innings of two-hit ball. She struck out three.

Huffstetler batted leadoff for Lambert in place of center fielder Maddy Butz, who is out for the season after undergoing hip surgery last week. The Tennessee-bound shortstop started Lambert’s first inning with a ringing home run to left-center.

“Savannah probably will hit leadoff the rest of the way,” Youngblood said. “She gives us a chance to have a 1-0 lead after one batter. How many girls can you say that for? It’s really only the first inning where she’s guaranteed to come up with nobody on base in front of her. We don’t lose a whole lot because Kassidy [Krupit] and Marissa in the three and four holes can put the ball over the fence just as easily.”

Guimbarda put Lambert in front for good in the third inning with a two-run double that struck halfway up the chain-link fence in right field to score Kaitlin Holloway (1-2, R, BB, SB) and Graham Bryant (courtesy running for Krupit).

Zoe Miller (1-2, 2B, RBI, SB) added a fourth run for Lambert with some two-out magic in the fourth — Rachel Cowart (2-3, 2 R, RBI) doubled to left-center and Miller followed with a high drive to right center that just eluded the reach of Lady Titans right fielder Jordan Mangat and fell for a double.

The Lady Longhorns added two insurance runs in the bottom of the sixth. Cowart singled to score Katie Schwind (running for Guimbarda, who led off with a walk). Miller reached on an error; Youngblood called for a double-steal, and Cowart sprinted home when Northview catcher Melissa Muench’s throw went in to center field.

“Our freshman — Krupit, Skylar Aledia, Cowart — dealt with a steep learning curve and really came along well,” Youngblood said. “They haven’t flinched one bit.”

Guimbarda closed out the region title with a scoreless seventh inning. Krupit (4 IP, 3 H, 2 R, 2 K) earned the win for Lambert.

Tuesday’s result locks in South as the No. 2 seed out of Region 6. West Forsyth will likely be the No. 3 seed, leaving four teams, including North Forsyth — Lambert’s opponent on Thursday — battling for the fourth and final playoff spot.

Lambert fell in the second round of last season’s Class AAAAAA state playoffs. The Lady Longhorns are eyeing Columbus, Ga. and the Elite Eight this time around.