Former New Hope High School basketball player D.J. Sanders remembers her ninth grade year.
Actually, she remembers running line drills in practice. For example, the Lady Trojans ran 38 line drills one day after committing 38 turnovers in a one-sided loss.
“I never thought about one day playing in the Mississippi Coliseum,” Sanders said. “Had I done that, the running may not have been that bad. Instead that day, the only thing I was thinking was ’34 left,’ ’33 left,’ and stuff like that.”
Eventually the running was completed that day. Four years later, New Hope’s run back to the coliseum and the Mississippi High School Activities Class 5A state tournament also came to a close.
Thanks in part to the offensive contributions and senior leadership from Sanders, New Hope returned to the Big House for the first time since the 1985 season. The Lady Trojans finished 26-3, falling to South Jones 50-48 in a heart-breaking state tournament semifinal loss in Jackson.
For her success, Sanders is being named The Dispatch’s All-Area Large School Girls Basketball Co-Player of the Year.
“This year was really a lot of fun,” Sanders said. “Each year is a learning experience. In my case, I had the longest journey, since I had been with coach (Laura Lee) Holman on the team since my eighth grade year. We came a long way. We can take a great deal of satisfaction in saying that we helped bring New Hope girls basketball back.”
In her junior season, New Hope finished 25-5. The Lady Trojans saw a big lead slip away in a North State semifinal loss to Lanier. That contest would have gotten New Hope to Jackson one season earlier.
“It really served as a huge motivation going into the season,” Sanders said. “Whenever we had a bad day at practice, someone would say remember last year. We don’t want to end the season crying in somebody else’s locker room. Your senior year is your biggest year, so that is also a huge motivation right there. We were bound and determined to make sure we carried this as far as we could.”
With 72 wins in the past three seasons, Sanders and fellow seniors Allison Newton, Mercedes Mattix, Silvia Sartori, Taylor Baudoin, Moesha Calmes, Taylor Blevins and Kaitlin Bradley not only returned excellence to the court but they also returned the fans to the stands.
“The support our whole community was so great,” Sanders said. “I remember my eighth grade year. Our crowds would be the same size as the junior varsity boys crowds. Sometime, we would be out on the court and we would hear our fans and I thought to myself ‘Man, I would hate to be the other team playing against that.’
“It was a lot of fun that we had the same kind of support on the road, too. Our fans were always there making racket.”
Making racket on the basketball court came natural. Sanders, who has signed to play Division I softball at Louisiana-Lafayette, feels like she and several of her teammates benefited greatly from winning one and playing for another state championship in softball.
“When you either have a taste or at least been close enough to have a taste, it helps you out so much as an athlete,” Sanders said. “It teaches you that your goals are attainable. When we won the state championship in softball, it was like — this would be really nice to do in basketball, too. I think we put in a little more hard work after that.”
The Lady Trojans also put in some more hard work after Holman slightly changed her coaching style midway through Sanders’ ninth-grade year. The fifth-year coach admits she was too hard initially. Her new style included backing off on the players and strengthening the bond with them off the court.
“When players who first played for her come back, they jokingly would ask us who this coach was,” Sanders said. “Since they had not seen that side of her. She has always been a great coach. However, it was really nice when she started letting us know how she felt. When she started showing us more tough love and started bonding with us more, that is when the team really took off and became special.”
Holman took the job at her alma mater with the intent of making New Hope a regular again in Jackson. She used playing for a state championship as a motivation.
“We talked all the time about leaving a legacy,” said Sanders, who credits parents Donnie and Renee Sanders, sister Deshuni Sanders, Holman, assistant basketball coach Ame Walker and softball head coach Tabitha Beard as her biggest influences. “She motivated us about being one of the teams other people always talked about. We wanted to (have success) for all of the younger players, who will follow behind us. But we also wanted to do it for ourselves. We wanted to build the program for the ones after us. I don’t know anything you can do better than to leave a legacy.”
When the Lady Trojans take the court to defend that legacy, they will be doing so while Sanders starters her new career playing in the Sun Belt Conference for the Ragin’ Cajuns. A premier shortstop and pitcher, Sanders is excited about a chance to compete for a Women’s College World Series title. ULL played in that event as recently as this season.
“I am super excited about getting started,” Sanders said. “I really like the coaches a lot. I have already gotten a chance to meet some teammates. They have a high level of excellence around there. I look forward to stepping in and doing my part.”
The good news for Sanders is that softball is a sport in which you can’t make 38 turnovers.
“That may have been the worst day of my life,” Sanders said. “You look back on it and you understand everything that happened. It takes you a while to understand it but you eventually do.”
Follow Scott Walters on Twitter @dispatchscott.
Scott was sports editor for The Dispatch.