The New Hope High School slow-pitch softball team will take the final step today.
Thirteen times previously, the Lady Trojans have celebrated that last step with a championship.
At 11 a.m. today, New Hope (23-7) will take on Picayune in the Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 5A best-of-three state title series for a chance to win the 14th state championship, and fifth in a row, in program history. The past two championships have come in Class 5A.
“You have to finish for it to matter,” New Hope coach Tabitha Beard said. “I think we have said that it gone, it was a good night, and let’s focus on the next.”
Beard was referring to New Hope’s sweep of Neshoba Central on Tuesday in the Class 5A North State title series in Philadelphia.
Neshoba Central coach Lee Killen’s team gave New Hope all it could handle in game two of the best-of-three series. It led 5-1 into the fifth inning before the Lady Trojans crept back into the game. Clinging to a 5-4 lead, Neshoba Central tacked on two more runs in the top of the seventh inning and had the momentum entering the final half inning. But D.J. Sanders’ double to right-center field scored a run and set the state for Lauren Holifield’s walk-off three run home run to left-center field that sent New Hope back to Jackson.
Even though Neshoba Central lost all four meetings to New Hope, it showed an ability to test New Hope in areas where it is its youngest, particularly in the outfield. The fact the final two games were played in an intermittent rain on Neshoba Central’s field that has a grass infield also might have contributed to some of New Hope’s fielding miscues in the North State title series.
“We felt coming in that if we hit the ball hard at some of them that they would make some errors, and that kind of held true in some spots on the field,” Killen said. “They are basically a young team, as well.”
New Hope spent time practicing at Lake Lowndes after the Neshoba Central series to prepare for playing on a big outfield and how to handle gap coverages. She said she hopes the two days at Lake Lowndes will help prepare the players for playing on a field with a 300-foot fence.
“It is one of those things that is kind of new and nerves set in,” Beard said. “A big thing (of playing on the V.A. Fields in Jackson) is cutting angles and the outfield becoming comfortable with each other in a bigger space. Sometimes it is easy to take for granted that if Lauren is right there she is going to catch it. With this, we have to realize we have to be there no matter where the ball is hit and they have to react quicker.”
The Lady Trojans’ youth is most evident at the bottom part of the lineup. Juniors Ashley Reed, Taylor Blevins, and Gabby Murray, sophomore R.J. James, freshman Abby Wilson, and eighth-grader Mackenzie Harvey made up the No. 7-10 spots in the batting order in the Class 5A North State title series against Neshoba Central. Those players combined to get four hits in 16 plate appearances and two hits in 12 plate appearances in game two. That was a marked difference from the first-round playoff series against Yazoo City. In those two games, the bottom four players in the lineup had six hits in 15 plate appearances in game one and six in 16 plate appearances in game two.
Beard said the team’s younger players have shown “in spurts” they’re capable of doing really great things. The challenge today will be to do that on the state’s biggest stage.
“A lot of them have been there and have seen it,” Beard said. “I think that is one advantage that we have that most teams don’t. They live through it every year, whether they are on the field or not. Every year they are sitting in that dugout and wishing it was their turn. Now it is, so it all is going to be about how are you going to respond to that. The biggest part of it is can they keep their nerves under control. If they can keep their nerves under control I think they will be fine.”
Beard said a key to success for New Hope this season has been when assistant coach Laura Lee Holman can “color” in the diamonds in her scorebook that represent the players in the bottom of the lineup.
“When I look back at our big wins, it has been a game where everyone has hit all of the way through,” Beard said. “That is going to have to happen, especially when the home run is eliminated from the picture.”
Beard said she has confidence in all of the players she puts into the lineup. She shuffled her outfield rotation in game one of the series against Neshoba Central when she substituted R.J. James for Gabby Murray in right-center field. James also started game two of the series.
Regardless of who starts or sees playing time, Beard is focused on doing one thing: Winning a state title.
“I want to finish,” Beard said. “I want to finish for (senior) Anna (McCrary). I want to finish for (senior) Ashley Byrd. These girls have come through a lot this year. Coming into a team that has two starters in their same positions as last year, with that senior year with Anna being thrown onto the mound in her senior year, I want to finish big for them.”
Adam Minichino is the former Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.