Tabitha Beard doesn’t know how many tears she cried in the past few weeks trying to figure out how to wrestle with a legacy.
When you play for and then follow a coach like Cary Shepherd, who helped establish New Hope High School softball as one of the state’s premier programs, there is an undeniable weight involved in maintaining that tradition. After watching Shepherd win nine slow-pitch championships, Beard kept New Hope among the best in the state, guiding the program to five consecutive slow-pitch state titles from 2007-11 and leading the fast-pitch program to the Class 5A title series in 2012.
But Beard admits something changed in the past few years. And while her love for Shepherd, her players, and the New Hope softball program never waned, those changes affected Beard and her family in ways she didn’t like. The changes made Beard question her actions and her identity and role as a coach, friend, parent, and teacher and, ultimately, forced her to consider whether she wanted to stay at New Hope High.
Beard’s decision was finalized Tuesday, when the board of trustees for the Tupelo Public School District approved her as a geometry teacher/assistant softball coach at Tupelo High.
“My worst fear is for (Shepherd’s) legacy to die,” Beard said. “To this day that is still my biggest fear. I have nothing but respect for her.”
“I love those girls, and you know I love that program, but it was something that for my family that I felt it was time and we needed a new start,” Beard said. “I trusted God and that he would lead me where I needed to go.”
Beard, who is a math teacher at New Hope High, will work as an assistant slow- and fast-pitch softball coach for Dana Rhea at Tupelo High. Tupelo hired Rhea, the former softball coach at Nettleton High, on Tuesday.
Beard said she will be one of two assistant softball coaches at Tupelo High. She said she resigned as slow- and fast-pitch softball coach at New Hope High last Monday. She said she informed New Hope High Principal Matt Smith of her decision Wednesday.
“They made me feel really wanted, and that is a great feeling sometimes, especially when you haven’t felt that way for a while,” Beard said. “They created a whole position for me to take.
“I declined the whole job and I got a call back and they (wanted me to come back for another visit). I was intimidated by the size of the school. I am not going to lie. That is a huge place.”
Beard said she was hesitant to bring her daughter, Brittni, who plays softball at New Hope High, to Tupelo High, but she said a subsequent tour of the school with assistant principal Tim Carter, who used to work at New Hope High, helped alleviate the concerns she had. She said she was amazed at the number of opportunities at the school available for her daughter.
Beard said her son, Hunter, will attend Milam Elementary School in Tupelo.
Beard had a record of 191-44 in slow-pitch softball. She took over the program from Shepherd, who won slow-pitch titles in 1989, 90, 97, 2000, 01, 02, 03, 04, and 05, in 2007 and guided the Lady Trojans to the first of five consecutive state titles. In all, New Hope has won 14 state championships. Beard’s fast-pitch record wasn’t available at press time.
“This has been my home for so long,” Beard said. “I need to be coach Beard again. In that program and to a lot of people in this community, I am Tabitha. As a coach, that is hard. It is a great thing in one aspect to know hey, these are my friends’ kids, but it also is hard to be Tabitha and not coach Beard when it gets down to the point of things that have conspired. That has a lot to do with it. I don’t think it would have happened and some things wouldn’t have been handled that way if it wasn’t someone so tied into the program.
“I have invested my life (in the program). My life has been to this school, and I love it. That is what I said (to the players). I made that abundantly clear.”
Beard said she didn’t like losing a big part of who she was as coach Beard because she is Tabitha, which is why she feels she needs a fresh start. She said she envisioned New Hope High would be the place she would retire nine years ago when she took the job, but she also admitted that she sometimes felt like a “stranger” in a place she grew up.
Still, Beard understands how some people in New Hope might find it difficult to believe she is leaving her “home.” She said she wanted to remain positive, but she couldn’t get past the fact that New Hope has changed a lot since coach Shepherd’s time.
“I have lived her 36 years, and I feel more like a stranger right now than I ever have in my life, and that is the biggest reason why (she decided to leave),” Beard said. “I say that for my family’s sake, too. My family needs a fresh start. … There are a lot of untruths, and I would think from someone who has been here my whole life that I would be supported a lot more than what I have, and to almost feel it has been the opposite. It is one of those things that you almost want to scream at the top of your lungs, ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about,’ but you don’t do that. You reserve it.
“It is just different. It has changed, and it is not all bad. I am not going to dog it. I wouldn’t do that. I still love this community, but it is a lot different. It is almost like I don’t recognize it sometimes, and that is scary to me.”
Donnie Sanders worked as a volunteer assistant coach for beard for two seasons. His daughters, DeShuni and DJ, played softball for Beard. He said the values Shepherd and assistant coaches Kathi Coleman and Wayne Ellis helped instill in the program continued under Beard’s leadership.
“For the number of (paid) assistants she had in her time as coach, because it was primarily just her and Connie (Sharpe, the mother of former New Hope High player Lauren Holifield) and then to have no paid assistants, I thought she worked hard at keeping the program going and not letting it regress,” Sanders said. “The girls’ knowledge of the game improved. I don’t know if she had as many kids in the later years who were playing travel ball, so there was a lot more teaching going on, but I think she did a good job with what she had to work with personnel wise and with her staff. I thought she did well with the kids.”
Neshoba Central softball coach Trae Embry echoed those sentiments. Embry’s teams have won five slow- and fast-pitch state titles in a row dating back to 2012, when they defeated New Hope. Neshoba Central beat New Hope again this season and will play West Harrison this weekend for the Class 5A state title.
“I think she will be missed,” Embry said. “Tupelo is gaining a good person and a good coach.”
Embry said Beard’s New Hope teams always were going to compete and be well coached every year. He said Beard was blessed to have players like DJ Sanders, who is playing softball at Division I Louisiana-Lafayette, and Holifield, the Mississippi Association of Community and Junior Colleges Softball Player of the Year, especially at the same time.
“I don’t know how many championships she won, but the championships speak for her and the great teams she had and the great job she did,” Embry said.
Robin Elmore, the longtime Caledonia High softball coach whose contract was not renewed after this past season, also had plenty of good things to say about Beard. She said she has known Tabitha all her life and also feels her record speaks for itself.
“She did a great job getting the chemistry with them and getting them to play together,” Elmore said. “She definitely was a winner. She won a lot of ballgames there, and that speaks volumes for the dedication and the effort coaches put into things. I have always been close to the family. Put it like this, I love her. I wish her the best.
“I think she is making a great decision for her family and everything.”
Still, Beard admits it has been difficult wrestling with the decision to leave New Hope and a program she was a part of and led for so long. She feels she helped continue the tradition Shepherd built, which means a lot, especially having to deal with the expectations the program faced every year. She hopes the tradition — the goodie bags, the pride the Lady Trojans take in defense — will carry on at New Hope because they will stick with her and she will try to bring them to Tupelo High.
“New Hope is always going to be home,” Beard said. “Coach Shepherd is a part of me. She is a part of every single player who put on the uniform and played with her. I know it sounds so cliche, but until you actually lived through it, you don’t get it. I think the biggest thing that coach Shepherd taught us is that softball is a great tool to teach you great life lessons.
“Softball isn’t life. There was a time when I took over this year softball was life and it was it. I have had to learn that wasn’t what she told me at all. Just the love you have for the players and a program, coach Shepherd is always going to be with me. Maybe I am putting a little New Hope into Tupelo. It is more like I am putting a little coach Shepherd into wherever I go.”
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Adam Minichino is the former Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.