To some people, at least, the Lambert softball team's run to the state quarterfinals was never in doubt.
The Longhorns beat Brookwood in two games to move on to the championship bracket in Columbus, and in the postgame pictures, senior second baseman Skylar Aledia held up a sign made by her mother before the game, with glitter and stickers and a softball seam design and "Columbus Bound" written in large letters.
At the start of the season, there was little uncertainty about Lambert. The Longhorns had gone 15-0 in region play in 2016 and had reached the state quarterfinals, and only one member of the team's starting lineup had graduated. Lambert was as clear a favorite as could be imagined.
And the team has accomplished their main goal of reaching Columbus, where the Longhorns start play on Thursday at 9 a.m. against Kennesaw Mountain. The route Lambert took to get there was the surprising part.
"It was not easy," Longhorns head coach Brooks Youngblood said.
Lambert didn't struggle to start the season, winning six of its first nine games in the Peachtree Ridge Tournament and GADC Leadoff Classic, and won its first region game over Milton. But then the Longhorns lost 4-3 to South Forsyth and 4-2 to West Forsyth, and a key difference between this year's team and 2016 became clear: The offense.
Part of it was regression to the mean, that a good chunk of the Longhorns' lineup had particularly good years all together in 2016, while 2017 wasn't going to be quite as charmed. Part of it was the absence of sophomore shortstop Brooke Miller for most of the region schedule, depriving the team of one of the best offensive players in the region, one who has already committed to play at the University of North Carolina.
And an unexpectedly huge part of it was the departure of that one graduating senior, Marissa Guimbarda, who hit 18 home runs in 2016. Her departure meant more than just the absence of her numbers: The team's entire offensive identity had to change.
"We've always kind of been the team that gets girls on base once in a while and (then) we just rely on the big hits," Youngblood said. "We've always been a big-hit team. We just get the home runs, or we get the big double when we need it."
But not in 2017. Lambert scored more than five runs just five times during Region 5-7A play, and the Longhorns have had to learn to produce without relying as much on any particular individual. The realization the Longhorns needed a new approach came after a 1-0 loss on Sept. 19 to West, a team that missed the playoffs.
"We weren't ourselves during that game," Aledia said. "But that was a turning point, because we realized this team is so much bigger than one person, so we learned to work together."
There's been more bunting, more emphasis on advancing runners when they're on base, more focus on taking extra bases to make up for the relative lack of power. Lambert didn't immediately become unbeatable – the Longhorns lost two more games after the loss to West, including a 6-0 defeat to South – but the offense has done enough in the postseason to support Lambert's two best attributes this year: above-average defense, and one of the state's best pitchers in Krupit, who has pitched all 35 of the team's innings in the playoffs and has given up just seven runs.
"Well, my arm has been hurting a little bit, but that's just because I've been pitching a lot," Krupit said. "I'm feeling really good right now. No issues — I'm ready to go. This is the best I've felt this year."
This year's journey to Columbus had less certainty and more adversity. And now that the Longhorns are there, the accomplishment feels better than ever. That doesn't mean their goals are more modest, though.
"Last year we'd never made it, and that felt great, but when we got there last year, we just wanted to get there," Krupit said. "This year, we're there to win. We're there to go to the championship and win a state championship. We're going in with a different mindset. We've been there, and now we've just got to own it."