Wanted: Creative, self-starter who can help four New Hope High School softball players find a nickname that captures their skills and the relationship they share.
Fantastic is out.
Lauren Holifield, Erin and Kasey Stanfield, and Ashley Reed have been together for so long that they should make turn their “Fantastic Four” moniker into their domain name.
Things haven’t been as easy for Taylor Blevins, Kaitlin Bradley, R.J. James, and D.J. Sanders. It’s not that the four juniors don’t share a bond that is equally as tight as the relationship their four senior teammates share. In fact, the four New Hope High School fast-pitch softball starters might be even tighter than their older teammates only because they seem to relish any and every chance to make fun of one of their quartet.
But don’t confuse the ease with which Blevins, Bradley, James, and Sanders interact with each other for a lack of intensity. Just as the senior Lady Trojans have played key roles in pushing New Hope (26-1) to the Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 5A North State final, the juniors have done more than their share to help the program win its first fast-pitch state championship.
As of this morning, New Hope remained in a holding pattern. Coach Tabitha Beard still didn’t know if Lake Cormorant and Neshoba Central would be able to play game three of their North State playoff series today or if weather would force them to wait until Saturday. The winner of that game will advance to play New Hope. If Lake Cormorant and Neshoba Central play today, the North State title series likely would start Saturday. If the game isn’t played, the series likely would be pushed to Monday. The state championship series is scheduled to start at 7:30 p.m. May 17 at Freedom Ridge Park in Ridgeland.
The uncertainty will give New Hope added time to find a nickname that is as catchy as the “Fantastic Four.” On Thursday, Beard nixed the suggestion of “Dynamic Quatro.” What the four juniors lack in spontaneous creativity, Beard said they make up for in enthusiasm, speed, talent, and just about anything else you can imagine.
“They make me smile,” Beard said. “It is so funny watching Kaitlin Bradley because we make the joke that when she first came out I was always saying, ‘Shh. Be quiet, Kaitlin.’ Now I am like, ‘Really, be quiet,’ because she talks a lot. Taylor fit in real well with them. They are such close friends. They have grown up playing this game together. It is neat to watch that progress.”
Sanders has teamed with Holifield to give New Hope a one-two punch in the circle. When she isn’t pitching, Sanders will play shortstop. Bradley, who played second base on the slow-pitch softball team, has moved to third base, while James and Blevins have anchored center and right field. Like Holifield and Kasey Stanfield are the more accomplished players of the senior group, Sanders and Bradley have had the most success of the four juniors. The similarity doesn’t end there. Just as Erin Stanfield and Reed have matured and improved as contributors, James and Blevins have learned to be more aggressive and assertive and have added speed at the bottom of the batting order.
“We’re all best friends,” Sanders said. “We feed off each other.”
Blevins, who is the oldest of the group by a few months, has the least amount of softball experience of the four. She said each player has a skill or personality trait that complements the other three. She said her stubbornness and “smart mouth” are helpful when it comes to keeping one of her classmates loose.
“If one is down, we’re going to make sure we pick each other up,” Blevins said. “We’re like sisters, and we protect each other.”
Blevins, who admits to being the “goofy” one of the group, said it took time for her to build friendships with Bradley, James, and Sanders. She said playing on the slow- and fast-pitch softball teams and the school’s basketball team made it easier for them to build a bond that has grown strong in the past two years.
Sanders said all of the juniors are goofy in their own way. Maybe that’s why she, Blevins, Bradley (the “quiet one”, or “the observer”), and James always seem to have a smile on their faces.
“Our friendship comes so naturally,” James said. “It is like I have known them my whole life.”
Adam Minichino is the former Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.