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Dacula head softball coach Kelli Poff, left, speaks to Falcons players Erin Watt (7), Michaela Milando (4) and Emily Digby (far right) during a game earlier this season. The Falcons and their neighbors from two miles up Dacula Road, Hebron Christian, are both looking forward to making the most of opportunities at the GHSA state softball tournament this week in Columbus.

From the most specific perspective criteria, Dacula High School and Hebron Christian Academy don’t share that much in common.

The former is from a public school that participates in Class AAAAAA in Georgia High School Association-sponsored sports, while the latter is from is a small, Class A private school.

However, the softball programs at the two schools located less than two miles apart on Dacula Road share quite a bit in common, especially as the GHSA state tournament draws closer to getting underway in Columbus on Thursday.

Dacula (25-5) will be making its first appearance in the tournament in 20 years when the Falcons take on Lee County in a AAAAAA first-round game Thursday at 2 p.m., while Hebron (19-10) will be making its first appearance in program history when it meets Gwinnett-rival and two-time defending champion Wesleyan in the opening round of the A (Private) tournament, also at 2 p.m.

While Dacula has played at the South Commons Softball complex in the tournament before, the fact that first-year head coach Kelli Poff was a senior player for the Falcons the last time that happened back in 1999 makes it just as new an experience for her team as it is for Hebron.

“It means everything,” Poff said. “It’s very much full circle (and) close to my heart. It’s really cool to take something that (retired head coach Tracy) Keefer built and I was a part of as a player, and now as a coach be able to take a special group back to (Columbus), is pretty cool.

“For (Hebron), the first time being in (Columbus is special). And I think for a lot of people, it feels like that for Dacula, too. I mean, not being there in 20 years, it kind of feels the same way. I’m proud of Hebron. I’m happy for them.”

Aside from the history, there are other things the Falcons and Lions have in common, including having first-year head coaches in Poff and Hebron’s Demetrius Frazier.

In addition, both 2019 runs to Columbus are the culmination of a steady upward trajectory for both programs, with Hebron having climbed from 5-18 just two years ago to the program’s first winning season in GHSA competition last year at 16-14 to its current record run this season.

“I just didn’t want to screw it up,” Frazier joked. “(Former coach and current Hebron baseball) Coach (Ben) Drust did a pretty good job of getting (the program) going in the right direction. Just having a couple of extra players here and there, everything kind of came together. We kind of struggled in the beginning, but we started playing well when it counted and started hitting our stride.”

The Lions were already benefiting from a solid nucleus of returning players from last year that including right-handed pitcher Layton Morris, a third-team All-County selections by the Daily Post as a freshman last year, Division I commits in catcher Maci Poisal (Georgia Military College) and centerfielder Sydney Harris (Georgia Southern), plus fellow seniors Mary Blake Whittington and Alyssa Harrison.

Tthe infusion of newcomers like Frazier in the dugout and athletic players likes Nicole Azar, Carly Fahey and Jessie Parish only added to the team’s depth on the field, and made them even more dangerous.

“It helped tremendously because the girls that were added to the team had softball experience,” Frazier said. “So the girls that were coming of the bench had softball experience, too, so there wasn’t a lot of drop-off when it comes to a pinch-runner or somebody filling in. Those girls already had experience, so that helped tremendously.”

Meanwhile, while Dacula have been a consistent participant in the postseason the past seven seasons, advancing to the second round of the playoffs the past two years proved to be a harbinger of the current breakout campaign in 2019.

The experience they gained the previous two years has led to that breakout.

“I think the chemistry we have is excellent, and obviously, that was built by our seven seniors,” Poff said. “Those seniors are, obviously, leaders on and off the field. They came from playing for Keefer (and former assistant Kristin) Croteau, so I think a lot of what they kind of instilled in those players (carried over).

“I think they’re hungry. They’ve been wanting to get to (Columbus) every year, and these seniors now this is their last chance. And I think they have a group of underclassmen around them that are also leaders, and they want the best for the seniors on their way out. It’s very special to see how hard they work for each other. And anytime you bring something different or fresh to the program, it adds something different. It just does. I think that was a little bit of a spark for them, as well.”

Of course, the Falcons have also relied on plenty of talent, led by position players like senior shortstop and Georgia Tech commit Jin Sileo (.433, 6 HR, 22 RBIs, 44 R, 27 SB), senior shortstop Elizabeth Soto and freshman centerfielder Emily Digby (.467, 29 RBIs, 13 doubles, 37 R), as well as junior pitcher Sydney Boulware (1.99 ERA, 184 K in 162 IP).

“Our pitcher, Sydney Boulware, she’s been outstanding for us,” Poff said. “I think this has been a really key year for her as a junior. She’s had some signature wins. Her stats are really ridiculous right now. She’s definitely led us on the field. She’s helped us win big games, kept us in games and kept them close for us. And I think she’s really grown, from what I’ve learned, the last couple of years … both physically on her talent and mentally as a leader. I think that’s been a big difference for her this year.

“Emily Digby’s been big for us. She’s a freshman and plays center field for us. She bats in the two hole behind Jin, and protects Jin, and that’s a hard ask for a freshman to hit behind Jin. She’s been outstanding for us in so many ways. And I think Elizabeth Soto, our third baseman and (another) senior, she’s just had a stellar year. I could go through everybody on the team. I just love them. They’ve definitely earned what everything, and I’m really proud of them.”

In fact, there is a quite a bit of pride to go around both programs, not only for their own players, but those of their neighbors.

And coaches from both teams admit that while they and their players be focusing on their own fates, they are also pulling for the other to do well in its classification.

“I think it’s awesome,” Poff said.”I’m really happy for (Hebron) and proud of them. We played them twice this season, and obviously, they’re just, like, a mile down the street. Some of our girls know their girls. They play travel ball with them. So I think it’s really cool for both teams.”

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Graduated from GSU in 1990. Have worked in sports journalism for the past 28 years, covering a variety of sports at the Gwinnett Daily News, AJC, Lafayette (La.) Daily Advertiser and Marietta Daily Journal before returning to Gwinnett at the Post in 2007.