This was supposed to be the year that the juggernaut that is the Gordon Lee Lady Trojans would finally come back to the rest of the pack. This was supposed to be the year that someone else would finally take home the state title trophy from Columbus.
I mean, come on. How many teams, especially those in the state's smallest classification, could overcome the loss of a senior class like the one that graduated from Gordon Lee last spring?
That seven-player senior class had gone 75-1 and bulldozed their way to back-to-back state titles in the previous two seasons. That senior class also included four future college players, and a slew of multiple All-Region and All-State awards, not to mention a ton of leadership and big-game experience.
Not only would Gordon Lee have to replace their entire starting infield this season, including several three-year starters, they would have to replace them with a group of young players, many of whom had yet to experience their first taste of big-time Georgia high school softball.
But those who hoped that 2012 wasn't Gordon Lee's year overlooked one small detail.
It's Gordon Lee.
And after the final out was recorded late Saturday afternoon at the South Commons Softball Complex in Columbus, it was an all-too familiar swirl of navy blue that was kicking up infield dirt, shedding tears, and tugging on state championship T-shirts.
Sure, the Lady Trojans' third straight state championship - and their fourth since 2004 - was anything but easy. For the first time in any of their state title seasons, Gordon Lee had to work their way through the losers' bracket after a 2-1 loss to a young and equally hungry Georgia Military Prep squad in Thursday's winners' bracket semifinal.
But faced with the daunting prospect of having to win five straight elimination games over a two-day span, the Lady Trojans met it head-on with their usual business-like approach.
They decimated a pair of state-ranked opponents in Seminole County and Schley County by a combined 19-0 on Friday, and bounced Region 6 member Mt. Zion, 9-2, in Saturday morning's losers' bracket final while GMC watched from just behind the rightfield fence.
Two first-inning runs gave Gordon Lee the early lead in the first championship game, sending a message that the Lady Trojans fully intended to make day of it. They staved off a GMC rally to force a second title game with a 6-4 win, and then put on a clinic in team softball in Game 2.
Timely hits, aggressive baserunning, and rock-solid defense - cornerstones of the Lady Trojans' program for over a decade - were on full display by the newest edition of Gordon Lee's softball team. And while the gritty Lady Bulldogs did their best to make things interesting, senior Kalei Kimbrell made sure their efforts were in vain.
The staff ace, Kimbrell cemented her place in the long run of dominant pitchers in Gordon Lee history, polishing off the final complete-game shutout of her high school career by stranding nine runners in a title-clinching 3-0 win.
With the final victory, the Lady Trojans amassed a jaw-dropping 141 wins against just nine losses during Kimbrell's four-year prep career, making her the winningest player in program history. She will also become the only player in Gordon Lee softball history to own three state championship rings...at least for now.
You see, Kimbrell was also the lone senior on this year's team. And while all eight teams in this year's Class A public school finals were stocked with youth - GMC and Mt. Zion did not have a single senior on their rosters - there is plenty of ammo in the chamber for Gordon Lee to make a run at a fourth straight title next year, and possibly more titles down the road.
And if past history tells us anything, it's that Gordon Lee will continue to be a contender at the state level. The past 10 years have seen the Lady Trojans finish third at state twice (2003 and 2005), finish second four times (2006-2009), and win it all four times (2004, 2010-2012). Yes, the faces may keep changing, but the results simply haven't.
Someone asked me the other day just how Gordon Lee keeps doing it, and there really isn't one specific answer.
Like any successful program, it starts at the top, and head coach Dana Mull, who took over the program in 2003, may simply be the best high school softball coach in the state, regardless of classification.
Mull has always surrounded herself with top-notch assistant coaches who know how to help get the most out of their players, and the program has become an incredible source of pride for the school and the Gordon Lee community.
It's taken the efforts of a dedicated group of parents, many of whom have sacrificed time and money during travel ball season in order to help make their daughters better players once the school season comes around.
And finally, and most importantly, it's taken the collective efforts and talents of numerous players over the years to earn Gordon Lee softball the statewide reputation it now enjoys.
But no matter their level of skill, every player to don the Navy-and-White has been important to the history of the program, and all have stepped up for their teams when they were needed the most.
It's a well-oiled machine. A dynasty fueled by talent and tradition. And as the 2012 Lady Trojans showed this past weekend and this entire season, it's a machine that looks built to keep running smoothly for the foreseeable future.
After all, it's Gordon Lee.
Scott Herpst is the Sports Editor of the Walker County Messenger.