PEARL — Champions overcome obstacles.
Through the years, the New Hope High School slow-pitch softball program has learned to deal with injuries, personnel changes, position swaps, and a litany of other things that would stop other teams in their tracks.
On Tuesday, an adjustment to an umpire”s strike zone and to a short stint in the rain was all it took for the Lady Trojans to extend their season.
D.J. Sanders and Jessica Moore each had three hits in game one, and Lauren Holifield had four hits in game two to lead New Hope to 12-2 and 11-4 victories against Pearl in the Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 5A North Half title series.
New Hope (24-4) will play Picayune in a best-of-three series that will begin at 11 a.m. Saturday at the V.A. Fields in Jackson. Picayune defeated Brookhaven on Tuesday. The Lady Trojans beat Brookhaven last season for their third consecutive state title, and 12th overall.
Every starter had at least one hit in each of New Hope”s victories Tuesday. In game one, Sanders had a double and a solo home run, while Moore had three singles and two RBIs. Holifield and Jordan Johnson each had two hits in a 16-hit attack that saw Anna McCrary deliver three RBIs and Haley Tutor add two more.
In game two, which featured a brief rain shower, Holifield had a double and a home run that bounced off the top of the fence in right-center field. McCrary added three hits, while Sanders, Moore, and Anna Holley each had two hits. Tutor, Holifield, Sanders, and Kasey Stanfield, who hit a home run in the bottom of the fifth inning, and Holley each had two RBIs.
The biggest stumbling block came in the opener, as the Lady Trojans needed to get tuned in to a deep strike zone that they didn”t always agree with in the mercy-rule shortened, five-inning game.
“I think it was just an adjustment that had to be made,” New Hope coach Tabitha Beard said. “Brandi (Brantley) pitches a lot like that, so I think once we wrapped our brains around that and realized, ”Hey, it is just like Brandi, let”s go hit, and it is something we see every day in practice,” (we got going).”
Beard said her players stayed focused even when some pitches that appeared to have been strikes early in the game weren”t called strikes in the later innings. She also praised the efforts of Brantley, the team”s senior pitcher, who managed her emotions in both games and adjusted her delivery to throw strikes.
Earlier in the year, Beard said Brantley had trouble containing her frustration when pitches didn”t go her way. In one game, Brantley walked eight, and while she walked four in game one Tuesday, she was able to regroup.
“I was doing pretty good and I had my arch going early and then she changed her little strike zone,” Brantley said. “I had a lot of pressure put on me and I had walks and they scored runs, but I think I did pretty well with it. I was pretty nervous. She changed the strike zone and I had to find out what it was again. In the second game, I kind of struggled and I got better toward the end. If I got to 3-0 on a girl I was able to come back and get a strike on her.”
In between games, she listened to advice from Beard and stayed focused, even if she had to shoot her coach a look in the fourth inning that would have frozen someone in their tracks.
“She means well, but if I let her get into my head I don”t pitch good, so I just have to shake it off and pitch like I know I can,” Brantley said. “There were times I wasn”t able to pick myself up and I had a few walks, but toward the end of the second game I got better and I got there and did what I needed to do. I think I did better toward the end of the game.”
Said Beard, who reminded Brantley one of the batters she walked had scored, “Brandi has to learn to say, ”Hey, it is part of it,” and go on with it. I think she did a much better job in the second game. Brandi realizes when she walks people it puts them one base closer to scoring.”
Holifield said the Lady Trojans had to look at Pearl”s Shannon Blaylock just like she was Brantley and treat each at-bat like it was “batting practice.” Once each hitter did that, Holifield said the team was able to adjust and to feed off each other.
“I think we played pretty well,” Holifield said. “We hit well, for the most part, and our defense was good.”
New Hope committed only one error (in game two) and had only two balls go over the heads of its outfielders. While pleased with the all-around effort of her team, Beard said the Lady Trojans still have things to address to make sure they are ready for Saturday.
“I think we”re doing well,” Beard said. “There are still a few things I saw I would like to work on, but as a coach you always have that. If you look at where we started and where we are now, it is a great thing. It is real exciting how much they have grown.”
n In other local softball action Tuesday, Mantachie defeated defending champion Hamilton 9-7 in the third game of their-best-of-three Class 2A North Half title series.
Mantachie won the first game 5-4 in its final at-bat before Hamilton (19-12) won game two 16-8 to force the third game.
Inclement weather delayed the scheduled start of the series one hour, 30 minutes. The series didn”t end until late Tuesday night.
Adam Minichino is the former Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.