It did not take long at all for the new kid in town to make her mark on the local softball scene.
Junior Avery Barton transferred from Jasper County High School to John Milledge Academy this year and was an asset for the Lady Trojan softball program from day one. Her .479 batting average and .500 on-base percentage this season were among the tops in the county, and she has sole claim over the local home run and RBI titles for 2020. Barton being named All-County Player of the Year ends GMC Prep’s streak of having a player earn the top softball honor going back the better part of the last decade.
While Barton ended one streak, she also helped keep another one going on the diamond. Her bat and glove helped John Milledge softball continue its tradition of making at least as far as the GISA AAA Final Four, which has happened six years running now. That pedigree is something that played a major factor in Barton leaving the school system she had attended her entire life up until this year.
“I wanted the opportunity to play on a team that could potentially play for a championship, and John Milledge had a record of being very competitive,” she said.
The move did not come without changes. Barton, who throws and hits right-handed, had been accustomed to playing at any of the positions up the middle of the field. In travel ball and past school ball she played centerfield, shortstop and second base with some time spent in the pitchers’ circle as needed. The Lady Trojans had a different need, though, so Barton spent her junior season almost exclusively at third base, a change she says she didn’t mind despite having never played there before.
“I actually really enjoyed third base,” Barton said. “I was just ready to play. As long as I’m hitting and out in the field I don’t really care where I play.”
At the plate, Barton’s prowess was on display immediately and consistently. She routinely held down one of the top four slots in the John Milledge batting order where she enjoyed the best hitting season of her high school career. While Barton does take part in weekly hitting lessons, she also attributes her success this year to one other thing.
“I think what made me a good hitter this year was the team environment,” she said. “Everybody cheers you on. When you’re up at the plate you hear parents and grandparents yelling for you. I think all of that really contributed to how well I did hitting this year.”
Even the best hitters get inside their own heads sometimes, though. That’s what happened to Barton as the Lady Trojans were finishing up the regular season heading into the state playoffs. Well, the postseason is no time for a slump, so she took some coaching to heart just prior to JMA hosting Southland Academy in the playoffs.
“The day before, Coach [Justin] Mills and Coach Walter [Prestwood] talked to me about confidence,” Barton said. “I had been struggling with that before those playoff games. They told me to just play the game. When I went out there, I didn’t think about anything mechanical. I just swung the bat.”
Just swinging the bat produced a big-time payoff. The GISA softball playoff matchups are decided in best-of-three series, and that day against Southland, Barton and the Lady Trojans needed only two games and 10 innings to advance. The girl whose initials are AB did the most with her ABs (at-bats), going 6-for-8 across the two games. A .750 hitting day sounds great, but it somehow gets even better upon diving deeper. In Game 1, she went 3-of-4 with two doubles and a triple. In Game 2, she went 3-for-4 again with a pair of massive homers and a single. Barton pushed 13 runs across the plate, a total good enough to outscore the opponent by nine runs. That series also saw Barton get moved up from fourth to second in the batting order, which is a similar strategy the Atlanta Braves used with 2020 MLB MVP Freddie Freeman.
“I feel like that’s a movement in baseball and softball right now,” Coach Mills said after that playoff series win. “The further up she is in our lineup, the more often she gets to hit. She’s one of the best hitters in the state, so we’ve got to get her as many at-bats as possible.”
In switching schools, Barton got what she wanted — to be in the hunt for a championship. The Lady Trojans made it to the state semis once again this past season before earning a state championship berth for a second consecutive year. There they ran into the buzzsaw known as the Westfield Lady Hornets, the team that has won the state title four straight years now. Barton says she’s looking forward to getting another crack at the GISA AAA softball queens in 2021.
“We’re losing some very strong players, but we still have a lot of girls coming back too,” said Barton. “I’m confident we’ll be very competitive again. We all would like very much to beat them. I think we’ll be able to put together some fight and give them a run for their money.”
Beyond her senior year, Barton has her college plans set. A softball offer came her way from Georgia Southern University just after this past season ended, and she’s already verbally committed to become an Eagle.
“Everything just kind of fell into place,” Barton said about her GSU commitment. “Talking with them made me feel like that was my home and a place I could be comfortable.”
Luckily for John Milledge, Barton still has another year of wearing the Trojan navy blue and gold before taking on those same colors down in Statesboro.