But it was her finish that earned the former Excel Christian Academy student inclusion in the all-region tournament team as a second baseman and accolades from her coach who describes her as part of the reason for the success of the Lady Chargers this season.
The athlete was signed with a promise she’d win a scholarship if she did well, Melissa Wood, her coach, said.
“When we signed Emily late last year, we had run out of money for scholarship players,” Wood said. “I told her then what she had to do to win a scholarship. She’s done everything we asked her to do and we felt it necessary to give her that scholarship.”
The coach said the Excel graduate had a lot of skills as a softball player and played multiple positions initially.
“We kind of used her as a utility player at first,” Wood said. “She just needed some innings.”
The coach said once Willingham got those innings in, she became a serious contributor to the success of the team.
“The last 10 games she played for us, she had nearly perfect numbers,” Wood said. “She hit .330 and led us in region play.
“She led us in the region tournament in almost every category. She made a couple of diving plays. She hit about .470 in the tournament, led us in doubles, in RBIs. She had a couple of game-winning hits and a lot of big hits.”
Willingham was named to the Region 17 all-star team as a second baseman for that performance.
Wood credits her with helping GHC — which is playing in just its second year of softball and its inaugural year in the Georgia College Athletic Association — to a third-place finish in its first region tournament, earning three victories against two losses, missing the championship game by two outs. The GCAA is comprised of four-year colleges, two-year community colleges and technical colleges. The Lady Chargers finished third out of the 11 GCAA teams in the regular conference season with a conference record of 13-7.
Willingham started at second base in all five of those region games, batting .467; leading the team in hits with seven; doubles, with three; home runs, one; RBIs, seven; and slugging percentage, with .867.
She also had a walk and stolen base and compiled a perfect fielding percentage of 1.000 with nine putouts and seven assists highlighted by two diving catches and a double play.
Willingham didn’t just finish the season well for Georgia Highlands.
She did well the entire season, finishing second in team batting average — .349, third in on-base percentage, .419; first in slugging, .590; sixth in runs scored, 17; fifth in doubles, nine; fifth in triples, one; third in home runs, three; second in RBIs, 25; and second in hit by pitches, four.
Wood said the Lady Chargers did not play a soft schedule either, noting the team plays a lot of tough teams and she uses that point as a recruiting tool.
“We played Florida, which has just won the national championship,” she said. “A lot of junior colleges don’t get to play that caliber of teams.”
She said Willingham held her own against that level of competition, just like her teammates.
“Emily just did an outstanding job for us and deserves to be praised because of her play this season,” she said. “We were two outs away from playing in the region championship game.
“She got a hit that would have put us in the title game, but our opponents scored the next time they were up and we came up short.”
Willingham will be joined by several Bartow County players next season.
They are Courtney Bailey, a Cass High star; Brandee Godfrey, a Woodland High player; and Ashley Jordan, Woodland High star left fielder and The Daily Tribune News Co-Player of the Year.
The Lady Chargers are led by Wood and Victoria Sanders, who both played at the University of Georgia and professionally overseas.
They played six four-year institutions to prepare for spring play including: NCAA Division I University of Florida, Mercer University, Georgia State University and Tennessee Tech University; NCAA Division II’s University of North Georgia; NAIA’s Reinhardt University.
Pitcher Morgan McKinney also was an all-tournament team member. Second team all-conference selections were McKinney, centerfielder Hillary Rowell and catcher Sierra Cagle.
All pitchers got a win in the post-season and every player on the active roster played in the post-season tournament.
They also played five out-of-conference opponents that went to the World Series (top 16) including Spartanburg Methodist College (GHC won 4-2), Chattanooga State Community College, Southern Union State Community College, Darton College and University of Central Florida.