Hope Williams doesn’t know how to explain the “miracle” that helped transform the New Hope High School slow-pitch softball team’s season.
After losing its first six games, including several by shutout, Williams said the Lady Trojans were struggling to build team chemistry, to understand their roles on the tea, and to adjust to a new coaching staff.
For a program that has won 14 state championships, that kind of uncertainty was an aberration. Whether it was long-time coach Cary Shepherd or former player turned coach Tabitha Beard leading the way, New Hope relied on hard work, tradition, and defense to build the softball standard for the rest of the state to follow.
It’s only fitting then that the 2015 New Hope slow-pitch team turned to an adage from Shepherd to find the key to their turnaround.
“One of her big things was be strong as a rock,” Williams said. “If we get down, we don’t fold. We will stay strong as a rock. If we are down, we come up and hit. We do whatever it takes on defense to make it back up to the top and hit back to the top.”
New Hope showed Tuesday how far it has come from the beginning of the season, sweeping Ridgeland 8-3 and 12-0 in the first round of the best-of-three Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 5A-6A State tournament.
With the victories, New Hope (21-7), the District 2 champion, will advance to face Grenada in the second round of the best-of-three playoffs.
New Hope had 11 hits in Game 1 and 16 more in Game 2. Kali Cox, Kelsey Gerhart, and Kerrington Bradford had two hits in the opening game. Megan James led the way with three hits and an RBI in the nightcap, while Lanora Abrams (RBI), Gerhart (double, two RBIs), Savannah Britt, and Tamia Boulds added two hits.
The victories were especially sweet for first-year head coach Bobby Taylor, who was asked in the offseason to take over as the program’s coach. Taylor has spent the past six seasons as assistant coach to Lee Boyd on the New Hope High baseball team. He has watched the softball team’s success from afar and heard about the accomplishments of Shepherd, who he said he didn’t know very well. But after a season with his new team, Taylor said he is happy to be creating more history for a program that has made a habit of doing just that.
“It is just recently that I have kind of realized how big it is, the softball for the girls is over here,” Taylor said. “I have never girls before. It definitely has been different. … It has been special for me because I didn’t realize I’d enjoy it as much as I have.”
Winning will help make things easier. To get the program back on track after the “rough start, Taylor said he had to settle on a lineup so the players could see what roles they were going to play. He said that was tough because it meant some players were seeing playing time while others weren’t. But he said the strength of the family bonds in the program — many of the mothers of the current players were New Hope High softball players — helped the girls understand they had to look to history as a way to change their fortunes.
You needed only to look around the stadium to see plenty of those examples. On the wall of the opponent’s dugout, a fluorescent lime colored sign read, “Welcome to the Field of Champions.” On one of the walls of the home team’s dugout read another sign of the same color that read, “Do What You Do Best.” Shepherd’s name was under that saying, offering her credit for the habits she instilled in the players and Beard helped continue.
But change hit the New Hope softball program in May, when Beard decided to step down as coach to take a job as a teacher and a coach in Tupelo. On May 18, Shepherd, the matriarch of softball in the state, died at the age of 71.
Williams didn’t play for Shepherd, but she said she learned what it meant to be a Lady Trojan from Shepherd’s former players. She said she and classmates Mackenzie Harvey and Savannah Britt and other team leaders, especially Gerhart, worked hard to set the tone and to help the team find its way.
“I think we all just came together,” Williams said. “The coaches started to understand us and we understood them. I think we love all of the coaches and we just want to do it for them and our team.”
Williams admits there was plenty of teaching and explaining that went on with the older and younger players. She also said there were times she became frustrated and that she walked off because she didn’t want “to get mean” with anybody.
Although the process took its time, Williams said it has resulted in a team that is “strong as a rock now.”
“It took a while for us to start teaching them, but then we started it and then they have caught on,” Williams said. “We did the traditions we did last night by going out to eat. We have had that tradition forever. We came back and did pumpkins and made them out of softballs. We do team-bonding things to keep us close and get ready for more playoffs.”
The pumpkins were lined from the top left corner of the New Hope dugout going to the right. The Lady Trojans also wore ribbons in their hair and pink socks as a show of unity. Williams also said the players planned to do a scavenger hunt later this week in an effort to keep things fun and to get them mentally ready for the next round.
“If you had asked me at the beginning of the season if I would be standing here talking to you I would have said no,” Williams said. “I believed we could, but I didn’t think we were going to because nobody was getting along, we were screaming at each other for the first couple of games. Everybody was getting irritated that we weren’t winning. We didn’t know what we were doing. We would hit in practice and then come out here and we wouldn’t hit at all. It was bad.”
“It is pretty amazing (to have won a first-round playoff series). I am glad. I wouldn’t want to do it with another group of girls. I love these girls to death. I am going to miss them like crazy.”
If Taylor needed a reminder of the “special” situation he inherited, he needed only to look at the wall of the recently dedicated Cary Shepherd concession stand where there was a fluorescent lime-colored sign that read “We Love (a heart drawn to resemble a softball) Coach Shepherd. Fly high and R.I.P. Matthew 7:25.”
Taylor said the experience has been so much fun that he hopes to be back next season and for as long as the slow-pitch softball girls will have him. He didn’t call the team’s transformation a “miracle,” but he acknowledged the journey has been satisfying.
“It seemed like it took us a little bit to get going,” Taylor said. “It was kind of what I call growing pains and them getting used to me and the system we were doing. I think when they finally realized what their roles were, they came together.”
Abrams, James, Williams, Anna Kate O’Bryant, and Meredith Woolbright also had hits in Game 1. Cox, Williams, O’Bryant, Alex Melton, and McKenzie Ray also had hits in Game 2.
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor
Adam Minichino is the former Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.