JACKSON — Tabitha Beard was concerned.
After watching her New Hope High School slow-pitch softball team blitz Brookhaven 10-0 in game one of its Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 5A state title series, Beard and the Lady Trojans had to wait 50 minutes before the start of game two.
Beard grew a little more anxious as she watched New Hope struggle at the plate and fall behind by three runs midway through the second game.
While Beard”s concern was justified, it proved to be unnecessary.
Buoyed by a six-run fifth inning, a strong relief job by pitcher Rachel Rhoades, and a balanced team attack, New Hope rallied and then held on for a 7-5 victory to claim the Class 5A state title at the V.A. Fields.
The title is the third in a row for New Hope (22-7) and 12th overall. The Lady Trojans won the Class 4A state title in 2007 and ”08 before moving up to Class 5A in the state”s latest reclassification.
“When we had to wait, I was a little afraid we were going to come out like we did and kind of lax off,” Beard said. “But I was proud of them for picking it back up.”
Brookhaven (15-19) used a four-run second inning that included two triples and a double, to take a 4-1 lead in game two.
Meanwhile, New Hope committed nine of its first 12 outs by hitting balls in the air, which helped give the Lady Panthers all of the momentum.
New Hope quietly snatched the momentum back in the fifth. The Lady Trojans used a bloop hit by Rhoades and a pair of walks to load the bases with one out. No. 2 hitter Lauren Holifield followed with a two-run double that ignited the rally. D.J. Sanders kept the inning going with a single before Brandi Brantley”s single gave New Hope a 5-4 lead. Ashley Boyle”s two-run double capped the inning and helped provide just enough of a cushion.
“I guess we were too excited in the second game, like we have to get this done,” said junior Haley Tutor, who walked and scored the tying run in the fifth. “But we finally pulled through and got some hits together and came through and scored.”
Rhoades then did her best to shut Brookhaven down. She came on in the bottom of the second after Brookhaven staged its first rally of the day. She responded by allowing only five hits in the final five innings.
“(Coach Beard) said I needed to pull through for her and for the team and I needed to keep the girls up and keep (starting pitcher) Morgan (Hardin) up and do what I was supposed to do,” Rhoades said. “I was shaking. I felt like it was all depending on me, but it really was about the team, and we pulled through like we were supposed to. We never gave up, and we kept our heads up and we cheered like we always do.”
The Lady Panthers loaded the bases in the bottom of the fifth, but a groundball led to a forceout at home for the second out. Catcher Taylor Brown then recovered from a missed popup to throw out a runner at first base to end the threat.
“I think the first game we were really nervous,” Brookhaven coach Lisa Covington said. “We were cold, New Hope hit the ball extremely well, and we didn”t hit with them. The second game we came out and hit a little better and played with a little more enthusiasm and made a little better game out of it. New Hope is an outstanding team, but I am proud of my girls for coming back and showing a little character in the second game.”
Brookhaven, which had only four hits in game one, started the season 0-11 and was guaranteed a playoff berth because it and McComb are the only schools that have slow-pitch softball teams in its district.
Rhoades retired the final six in order to set off the celebration.
“She did a great job,” Beard said. “When things kind of went the other way (with Rhoades” injury), Morgan stepped up and did a great job. I talked to Rachel a lot about her being ready because you never know. … Rachel had been working really hard. For her to go to two or three or four games all year to coming in and playing in the state championship game was amazing.”
New Hope banged out 17 hits to win game one by the mercy rule in the bottom of the fifth. Tutor had three hits and an RBI, Holifield had three hits, including a double and a triple, and three RBIs, and Boyle (RBI), Anna McCrary, and Anna Holley (RBI) had two hits as 10 of the 11 Lady Trojans who batted had hits.
But the layoff cooled the hot bats and had Beard doing her best stern coach look down the third-base line as ball after ball sailed into the outfield, well in front of the 300-foot fences.
Beard said the Lady Trojans might have fell into thinking they could hit home runs Saturday like they did against Ridgeland when they hit seven in a series sweep.
Fortunately, New Hope regrouped and found the middle of the ball in time.
“Since playoffs started, we have done a great job hitting and we have done a great job of seeing the middle and hitting the middle,” Beard said. “I think sometimes our eyes got a little big with those fences, especially with the home runs we have been hitting. I told them to calm down and told them you”re not going to hit a home run here. We burned them (hit the ball over the heads of their outfielders) a few times in the first game, but they had us played well in the next game. We just got back to hitting the middle of the ball, which we needed to do to win, and we did.”
New Hope loses just two seniors — Hardin and Empress Shirley — from the slow-pitch team. Many of the same girls who helped the program win a 12th slow-pitch title will be back on the field in 2010 for fast-pitch season.
Regardless of the season and the team”s experience level, the Lady Trojans” confidence helped pull them through and enjoy a title party that never gets old.
“I knew we could come back and that we could come together and get hits,” Tutor said. “It is still exciting. This is like my fourth one and it is still exciting. Just the happiness that comes to your face is amazing.”
Said Holifield a ninth-grader, “It”s awesome. This year it actually feels like I contributed.”
Adam Minichino is the former Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.