On one field, she is the picture of poise — stoic — regardless of whether she has just struck out the side or allowed a hit.
On another stage, D.J. Sanders transforms into a whirling dervish — supercharged — either at the front of the New Hope High School girls basketball team’s press or in the lane gobbling up rebounds.
Sanders’ energy was contagious Monday night and was the fuel behind New Hope’s 67-47 victory against Starkville in the Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 5A North State tournament at New Hope High.
Sanders had 32 points, 12 rebounds, six steals, and four assists to help push New Hope (25-4) another step closer to Jackson, the site of the state championship games. New Hope, the Region 2 champion, advances to face Lanier, which defeated Center Hill 60-51 Monday night, at 6 p.m. Friday at a site to be determined.
“It is supposed to be opposite,” Sanders said. “In softball, I am supposed to be composed and calm taking the mound as a pitcher no matter what happens. In basketball, I get a lot of points off defense. I like defense. It is easy to play. It is really hard to mess up on defense. I feel like I need to be energized when I go out there.”
“When she is at her best we are at our best,” New Hope coach Laura Lee Holman said of Sanders’ impact on her squad. “That comes from her leadership skills. They are developing every day, and she really tries to take on that role as team leader. We talked early in the season about you’re either a leader or a follower. Early on, we established some leaders, D.J. being one of them, and we said you’re either a follower or dead weight. I think we are doing a great job of following.”
Holman said Sanders has taken a “huge” step in terms of leadership. She said the presence of junior Taylor Baudoin, a transfer from Immanuel Christian, has pushed Sanders and helped make each player better. As a result, the team has committed to making everyone better and has charged ahead led by Sanders.
“D.J. has really decided she wants a championship, and she is doing a great job of getting us there,” Holman said.
Sanders had eight point in the second quarter to help the Lady Trojans build a 19-point lead before they settled for a 33-19 halftime edge.
A steal and layup by Sanders with 3 minutes, 40 seconds to go in the third quarter enabled New Hope to open its biggest lead, 44-21. Imane Montgomery scored nine of her team-high 20 points midway through the fourth quarter to help Starkville (15-9) cut the deficit to 57-45 with 3:30 to go, but a layup by Sanders off a pass from Baudoin (six points, five assists) and a steal by Sanders that led to a layup by Kaitlin Bradley (17 points, five rebounds) helped end the run.
Moesha Calmes added five points and five rebounds for New Hope, while Blair Schaefer added 18 points for Starkville.
Holman said a source of motivation has hung over the players’ heads all season. With only three seniors — Lauren Holifield, Gabby Murray, and Columbus High transfer Antonia Jethroe — and eight juniors, including Sanders, it has been difficult for New Hope fans not to look ahead and dream of a trip to Jackson. When the team plays at home, it has the reminders of the 1981 Class A state championship team, the 1984 Class A state title squad and the 1985 Class 3A runner-up team, and the 1989 Class 4A runner-up squad.
Holman, who was born in 1984 and grew up with many of the players on those squads as role models, remembers talking to former New Hope coach Kathi Fleming, who led New Hope to the title in 1984 and the two runner-up finishes, and being challenged to put her name up on the wall to be remembered forever. She said the players have made her dream theirs and have worked hard to put their names on the wall.
“They have really committed to that is our goal,” said Holman, who graduated from New Hope High in 2003 and went on to play basketball at Troy University. “I told them let’s just get to Jackson, and we have one more game. To even have the possibility to achieve your dream is very, very special.”
Sanders will do everything she can to make that dream a reality. She understands her teammates feed off her energy and activity. She said she has learned to push through bad days to keep her team motivated and focused. She feels she hasn’t made a big change from last season, but she said the difference is the team is a year older and more mature, which is why it is doing its best not to look too far ahead and making plans to be in Jackson.
“We are focusing on game by game because you can’t get to Jackson skipping these next two games,” Sanders said. “It is one at a time. We are trying to get to Jackson, but we are doing these things on the way there. It has been 23 years since we have gone to North State, so even if we don’t make it there, we still are progressing.”
Starkville coach Kristie Williams hopes her team, which loses seniors Kelsye Reed (seven points) and Kasey Jett to graduation, continues to mature in the offseason. She praised New Hope for its aggressive, trapping style of play that forced her team into mistakes. She hopes the “sting” of the loss will encourage some of the returning players to work on their games to give the team added dimensions other than Schaefer and Montgomery next season.
“Blair was able to get free sometimes, but she had three and four people on her at a time and that’s when somebody else could have stepped up and said, ‘Ok, let me do my part and ease the pressure off her,’ ” Williams said. “We hope those underclassmen see that and want to get better. You can’t go anywhere if everybody is not on the same board.”
Sanders doesn’t want to feel that sting. Williams feels New Hope has the weapons to move on and is going to thrive on easy transition baskets to force tempo. If Sanders has anything to do about it, she will be out front leading the way.
“D.J. is a solid athlete,” Williams said. “I knew she was a big reason for them to get this far, so I knew she probably was going to have one of her better games. I thought we could at least meet her challenge, but she is such a gifted athlete.”