Bill Ball pulled the cap off his blue dry erase marker, approached the white board in the Bluffton High School softball dugout and penciled his Bobcats into the next round.
The Bobcats need only to write their name down twice more for a District VI championship.
"That would be nice," Ball said.
Bluffton anticipated a few more of those completed brackets over the last several years, only to fall just short of its ultimate goal. The Bobcats have lost in the district championship in each of the last three seasons, including a gut-wrenching defeat with arguably Ball's most talented club a year ago.
They took the first step in righting those missteps Thursday, as Courtney Smith's dominance on the mound led to a 7-1 triumph over Stratford in the first round. Up next is a road date with Carolina Forest on Saturday, which knocked off North Augusta 10-0.
"We touch briefly on it, but we don't harp on it," Smith said of the Bobcats' playoff woes. "We just focus on getting past our mistakes from last year and not making those boneheaded mistakes."
Ball's white board laid out the strengths and weaknesses of all four teams in Bluffton's bracket in the last few days. The Bobcats saved their review for last in order to see what the group should work on in preparation for future match-ups. Smith capitalized on those scouting reports Thursday, as the junior did not allow a hit after the first inning while retiring 18 of the last 19 batters she faced.
"We were doing a little bracket analysis with the girls at practice the other day, just kind of determining strengths and weaknesses of the different teams to base our preparation on what we're looking at," Ball said. "Girls love to know. They wrap their arms around things. You can't give them enough information."
Smith said the Bobcats graded their offense as average in the hopes of pushing it to new heights in the coming days. Bluffton looked the part against Stratford, registering 10 hits and a decisive five-run fifth inning. Shortstop Mikyla Houglan led the way, going 3 for 4 with a triple and an RBI in her return following a three-game absence as she tended to a left hamstring pull.
Four other Bobcats also brought in runs, including Smith's two-run single in the decisive third inning.
Smith believes her team's chemistry this year is good enough to atone for the mistakes that have cost Bluffton in season's past. The Bobcats will have a chance to prove that Saturday against a Carolina Forest team ranked second in Class 4-A.
"We cut up in the dugout, we cut up at practice, we cut up with our group messages just to get each other to relax," she said. " ... We all know how to work together with each other and cope with each other.
"Not only are we strong this year, but we're also close mentally. We know how to handle each other and how to get each other back up when we're down."
Stratford 100 000 0 -- 1 2 0
Bluffton 205 000 X -- 7 10 2
WP: Courtney Smith 7 IP, 1 R, 1 ER, 2 H, 0 BB, 6 K.
LP: Fallon Tingler 4 IP, 7 R, 7 ER, 8 H, 2 BB, 1 K.
Top hitters: Stratford -- Megan Johnson 1 for 3, 2B, RBI; Jessica Palmer 1 for 3, 3B. Bluffton -- Mikyla Houglan 3 for 4, 3B, RBI; Whitney Morrell 1 for 2, 2 RBI; Courtney Smith 1 for 3, 2 RBI; Carley Thomas 1 for 3, 2 RBI; Lilli Otten 1 for 3, RBI.