It didn't take Dan Weber long to realize he had walked into something special at East Forsyth.
He knew before the season that the Broncos had the talent. Still, questions about how the girls would play as a team and who would play what position lingered.
Then, during a scrimmage against Denmark in late July, Weber saw it start to come together.
Cali Marshall singled home Emma Smallwood to give East a 1-0 lead just a few minutes into the Broncos' first-ever organized game. After the Danes scored four runs over the next three innings to grab a 4-1 lead, Kennah Wall stepped to the plate in the top of the sixth and launched a three-run home run to tie the game 4-4.
Denmark exploded for nine runs in the following frame to pull away, but Weber was convinced.
These girls are special.
"I think the biggest thing about this girls is, they just want to play together," Weber said. "They've had this instant connection. They hang out in class. All the girls show up in my room hang out and talk before school. They just want to be together, and I think that's the reason why the success is there."
Perhaps the biggest surprise this season came when Marshall emerged as the Broncos' cleanup hitter.
In eight games, Marshall is hitting .600 [12-for-20] with eight runs scored and five RBIs.
"They actually just moved in at the beginning of June, and she's a freshman. She's been a bright spot," Weber said. "I could talk about every girl — like [Emma] Siver behind the plate. She's just powerful, young, has a strong arm. [Shelby] Conaway has never played first in her life, so she's playing first. She was our other catcher. Kennah Wall, she's usually at third or shortstop. She's playing second. Cowart is a center fielder ranked in the nation."
Instead, Cowart is the team's starting shortstop. On offense, she serves as the Broncos' leadoff hitter, where she has scored 13 runs and swiped nine bases this season.
Emily Hutcheson has settled in behind Cowart in the Broncos' lineup, batting .500 [16-for-32] with five doubles and a triple.
"I've got Ava [Cowart] and Emily [Hutcheson], two lefties who come up there who have a lot of speed," Weber said. "It's hard to play against that. Cowart's a slapper, and Hutcheson, she can slap or hit it deep like you saw. So, you don't know how to play her. Emily Hutcheson is our captain. She's the one who leads us. If you come watch a game, she's a double out of the box. She will play hard for you. She leads this team well."
Hutcheson nearly had a home run Monday against Lumpkin County, when she smoked a line drive that would have cleared the right-center field fence had it been 6 inches higher. Hutcheson hustled out of the box and legged out a triple, then scored on Cadence Alberty's RBI single.
It was part of a four-run first inning for East that saw a sacrifice fly from Emma Smallwood, an RBI double by Kennah Wall, and a double steal initiated by Emma Siver that allowed Wall to score from third base.
"A lot of these girls, they remind me of the old Lambert team with Marissa Guimbarda," Weber said. "That's who this reminds me of."
That Lambert team went 25-5 in 2016 and ran the table in Region 5-7A, finishing 15-0. A longtime assistant at South Forsyth, Weber was in the dugout when the War Eagles ended Lambert's magical season at the Class 7A state tournament in Columbus.
Guimbarda was the only senior on that team, which included promising freshmen such as Brooke Miller, Kaley Varner and Anna Jackson.
East has no shortage of freshman talent, including starting pitcher Cadence Alberty.
Alberty has emerged as the Broncos ace this season, posting a 1.43 ERA across 37 2/3 innings and striking out 44 batters.
"You could tell right away. She just has that 'it' factor that you find in girls in the circle," Weber said. "I think as a freshman she's very mature. We also have Abi Shaheen and Emma Smallwood. In a lot of programs, they're probably both going to be a one. Abi came from Central and she just showed up ready to go. She's run into a little bit of bad luck, but she's phenomenal. Then Smallwood pitched the other day against Gilmer five innings. So, I'm very fortunate to have three girls that just take the circle and go, 'We've got it.'
"Cadence, yeah, she's our goat, and she knows it. Abi's our two and Smallwood's our three, but in any other program, they're probably all ones."
It's not just the top of East's lineup that poses a threat to opposing pitchers. Shaheen rounds out the Broncos lineup and packs plenty of pop.
"In the Dawson County game, she came in — and she hits in my nine spot; she's comfortable there — the game is 3-0 and she comes in and hits one out," Weber said. "We're 4-0 with a nine spot hitting a home run. She's been a great surprise — not on the mound, because I expected that from her, but at the plate. She's just kind of said, 'I'm going to take a spot.'"
Two days later, Shaheen picked up the win in the circle against North Hall in a 10-9 win. The Broncos pounded 14 hits, thanks in part to a home run from Alberty and a 4-for-5 performance by Hutcheson.
Still, North Hall seemed to answer each time East pulled ahead. Finally, a four-run fifth inning that saw RBIs from Smallwood, Wall and Conaway turned a 9-6 deficit into a 10-9 lead for the Broncos.
"I think at that point, they decided they wanted to be great, because a 10-9 game, a good team loses. A great team finds a way to win when they're not playing their best," Weber said. "I think North Hall was a turning point. Since then, we've played White County, we've played Cherokee Bluff, we've played Gilmer, and we're putting up 8-0, 8-1, 13-4."
The Broncos are 7-3 overall and 5-0 in Region 7-3A. Gilmer won the region last season, but East beat them 13-4 on Saturday. Lumpkin County finished second in the region a year ago, and while the Broncos have yet to complete a game against the Indians, East carried a 4-0 lead into the bottom of the third inning Monday before the game was halted because of inclement weather.
Weber doesn't shy away from expectations, but right now, the focus is on reaching the playoffs.
"I think with our youth, the biggest thing we talk about is making the playoffs," Weber said. "Everybody talks about us being 5-0 or whatever, but the big deal is we're freshmen. We're still trying to figure things out. Our three assistant coaches, they work harder than anybody I've ever met. Those three — Coach Bama [McGivalry], Coach [Natalie] Bennett and Coach Johnny [Hernandez] — they're the hardest working assistants. They make things better for the girls."