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Softball: Lambert, winner of 25 straight games, takes off for Columbus
Lambert players, from left, Courtney Sauer, Sydney Chung, Hannah Cornetto and Elizabeth Harper run off the field last week during the Longhorns' doubleheader sweep at Parkview. - photo by David Roberts

Different city. Different field. Different game time. Different stakes.

It seems nearly everything is different about Thursday's game between Lambert and Hillgrove in the first round of the eight-team, double-elimination state tournament in Columbus.

Teams with long winning streaks are generally advised to keep the same routine, lest an altered pregame ritual or a new pair of cleats bring bad luck. And boy, does Lambert have a streak. 

The Longhorns have won 25 straight games dating back to the second week of the season. Fourteen of those wins were shutouts, including last week's 9-0 and 5-0 wins at Parkview, plus a 4-0 first-round win against Mountain View.

With so much upheaval, the key this week in Columbus? Just have fun.

"I think, personally, when you go out and play the game, that should be the most fun," Lambert coach Brooks Youngblood said. "That should be when you're having the most fun. I think the practice time, if you are business-like and taking care of what you need to do during practices, then it allows you to kind of go out in the games and be a little bit more loose and have fun and just say, 'Hey, we're playing softball. Let's enjoy this.'"

Youngblood gave the team a couple of days to enjoy their latest addition to the winning streak, a reward for an utterly dominant performance against Parkview.

Hannah Cole and Courtney Sauer turned in nearly identical outings, both throwing twin complete-game, two-hit shutouts. Each pitcher also struck out nine batters. The only real difference was Cole's two walks to Sauer's one.

Cole added a home run in Game 1, which came three innings after a Maddie Todd grand slam broke the game open and gave the Longhorns a six-run lead. Todd finished 3-for-7 with five RBIs and two runs scored.

"Don't go out and try to be someone you're not, because who you've been has been pretty dang good."
Lambert head coach Brooks Youngblood

So, the Longhorns kept it light this week. Players came to school decked out in Atlanta Braves one day, and on Tuesday, they painted cars with slogans such as "Hook 'em Horns" and "Elite 8 bound."

"I just don't want our girls to press too much. We just need to play the way we've been playing," Youngblood said. "We don't need to go out and be extra anxious. I've been trying to talk with Hannah [Cole] a lot and Courtney [Sauer], like, I don't need you to be anything other than how you've been. Don't go out and try to be someone you're not, because who you've been has been pretty dang good."

Lambert [28-4] will face a Hillgrove team that finished third in Region 3-7A. Hillgrove [21-11] beat second-seeded Lowndes in the first round of the playoffs, 6-4 and 7-4, before topping fourth-seeded Etowah in the second round, 9-2 and 5-4.

"The number one thing I know is that they're in Columbus, and you don't make it to Columbus unless you're a good team," Youngblood said. "We've experienced that for sure the last couple of times we were there. Those teams are all good down there. I've talked to a few coaches that I know who gave me a little bit of information on them. I know that they're going to be a team that ... is a never-quit team. This is what multiple coaches have told me, and if they get down, they're coming back at you. They're going to scrap and claw and do whatever they have to do. They don't give up easily."

Youngblood said he expects the Hawks to play small ball and put pressure on the infield with bunts and steals. 

Luckily, Lambert's infield has been fantastic this season. 

Sensational plays have become the norm for Hannah Cornetto at third base, while Katelyn Boyette and Emma Harwood patrol the middle infield, and Elizabeth Harper mans first base when Cole pitches. 

Lambert brought back all but one starter from last year's Sweet 16 team, the lone exception being shortstop Colleen Thorson.

Youngblood knew Boyette was up to the challenge before the season started.

"I put her there to start the year because I knew she could handle it," he said. "I at least thought she would do a good job, and that was my anticipation. She definitely from a defensive perspective has done a great job, I think, this year. She's been solid there. She's been making plays she needs to make. I know for a fact that she is one of the hardest working, most competitive kids that we have. She really has that drive. She's a winner, and she's tough. I know she's not going to take any plays off."

Then there's Harper, who made a terrific sliding catch during Game 1 of the Parkview series to end the inning and strand a runner on second base.

Elizabeth Harper

"I think Elizabeth Harper has played really well at first base when Hannah's been pitching," Youngblood said. "We had a few people there, a few of the girls, and we really didn't know going into the season who it was going to be that was going to end up taking over that position. She did a good job, and she's earned that."

Sydney Chung rounds out Lambert's infield at catcher, and she was nothing short of sensational against Parkview, collecting five hits and driving in three runners.

"I expected her defense," Youngblood said. "I knew she would do a great job behind the plate, and she did. But offensively, kind of later in this year, she's really turned it on lately — getting on base, getting hits very consistently. That's been big for us as well."

In addition to her pitching prowess, Sauer might be one of the best center fielders in the state, and left fielder Kristen Cowart and right fielder Maddie Todd make up the rest of Lambert's solid outfield.

Should Lambert beat Hillgrove on Thursday, the Longhorns will face the winner of Cherokee/East Coweta at 11 a.m. Friday. 

Cherokee and East Coweta, both region champions, each steamrolled their way through the first two rounds of the playoffs. 

Cherokee swept Norcross by a combined score of 35-4, then eliminated North Paulding, 4-1 and 8-6. 

East Coweta, the top-ranked Class 7A team and the reigning state champion, beat Brookwood in the first round 5-1 and 9-4, then pummeled Peachtree Ridge 11-2 and 11-0.

A win in that game would pit the Longhorns against the Mill Creek/Milton and North Gwinnett/Colquitt County winner for a spot in the state championship game.

Lambert first reached the tournament in 2016, coincidentally enough, after shutting out Hillgrove in a second-round sweep. The Longhorns have now qualified for Columbus three times in the past six seasons.

"Personally, I've already been to Columbus a couple of times so I already know that excitement about being there," Youngblood said. "You're always excited to get there because you never know when your next chance to go is going to be, because it's hard to get there."