With the chain-link fence along the right-field line at Trojan Field down last week, that’s how far it was if you wanted to walk from one of the state’s biggest stages in high school sports to another.
There have been countless times in the past 20 years when the lights have burned bright at Trojan Field, home of the New Hope High School baseball program, and Lady Trojan Field, home of the school’s softball teams, at the same time. The number of championship signs on the outfield walls of both fields is a testament to the hard work the coaches, players, and parents have invested in all three programs.
For the past six years, Bobby Taylor has spent nearly all his time on one side of the fence. As an assistant baseball coach, Taylor has worked with New Hope baseball coach Lee Boyd to build on that program’s already impressive tradition. In that time, he heard of and learned about the accomplishments of longtime New Hope softball coach Cary Shepherd and her successor, Tabitha Beard. But Taylor admits his duties as baseball coach kept him busy, so he never really got to know Shepherd, who died in May. Shepherd and Beard helped guide the New Hope slow-pitch softball program to 14 state titles. Their work also helped establish the fast-pitch softball team as one of the state’s best.
Taylor said this season has been special because the girls work hard, listen, and want to be the best they can be.
“It has been a pleasant surprise,” Taylor said. “I always have been kind of standing off to the side of there watching, but now that I am a part of it I see how special it is for them. They do a lot of things that the boys don’t do.”
At 5 p.m. today, Taylor will try to lead New Hope (23-7) back to the state title series when it takes on reigning state champion Neshoba Central (24-6) in the best-of-three Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 5A-6A North State championship. The winner will take on the winner of the South State title series between Wayne County and Northwest Rankin in a best-of-three series at 10:30 a.m. Saturday at Freedom Ridge Park in Ridgeland.
New Hope defeated Grenada 8-3 and 9-8 on Saturday to advance. It swept Ridgeland in two games on Tuesday in Columbus in the first round.
Neshoba Central defeated Columbus 13-2 and 14-2 on Saturday in Columbus. Coach Trae Embry’s squad has won the last three slow-pitch state titles and the last three Class 5A fast-pitch state titles. Neshoba Central has defeated New Hope in each year of the playoffs on the way to its state championships.
None of that really matters to Taylor, who was asked to take over the slow-pitch program after beard resigned to take a teaching and coaching position at Tupelo High. Longtime baseball assistant coach Billy Ray lee, who also has worked as an assistant softball coach, and former New Hope High softball player Kristen Harvey also are helping as assistant coaches. Taylor said he has had such a good time this season that he hopes to come back next season if the school and the players will have him.
Taylor’s success after a slow start that saw the team lose its first six games is one of many storylines. Shepherd’s granddaughter, Reed McGlothin, a seventh-grader, is a first-year member of the program. Reed’s mother is Shelly Shepherd McGlothin, who also played softball for New Hope.
The Shepherd McGlothin connection isn’t the only one on the team involving family members. There are five other mother-daughter sets on the team in which the mothers played softball for Shepherd at New Hope. The others are:
Tammy Perkins Ray (mother) and Kenzie Ray (daughter), Jill Daffron O’Bryant (mother) and Anna Kate O’Bryant (daughter), Vicki Wyers Gerhart (mother) and Kelsie Gerhart (daughter), Jaime Ellis Melton (mother) and Alex Melton (daughter), and Lori Hallmark Cox (mother) and Kylie Cox (daughter).
Another of Tammy’s daughters, Chelsea, played softball for New Hope and graduated last year.
The team only has three seniors — Savannah Britt, Mackenzie Harvey, and Hope Williams — so the future figures to be promising. Harvey is the third of three Harvey sisters to play softball for New Hope.
Taylor said he hadn’t talked to Shepherd in a long time and didn’t know her personally. Even though they didn’t have a relationship, Taylor said it is easy to tell how much the people in the program love Shepherd. Earlier this season, the press box/concession stand at Lady Trojan Field was dedicated in Shepherd’s name. Many of the traditions Shepherd started — like giving opposing teams goodie bags — have continued with the younger girls because Taylor said 90 percent of the parents played for Shepherd and they want her legacy and memory to carry on. Taylor said the bond the former players share with their former coach and have passed on to their children is another reason why this season has been so special.
After a lot of roster shuffling, Taylor said he settled on a lineup that helped the players understand their roles. He said he never would have imagined coaching the softball team and then having such a great time and wanting to do it again next year.
“I knew some of these girls. I had a lot of these girls in class and they needed somebody,” said Taylor, who played softball for a long time. “A lot of the other coaches for some reason didn’t want to do it. I knew I would have fun with it, but I didn’t know it was going to be this fun. It is a lot of fun for me. It is going to be something I am going to remember until I die.
“It is a special group of girls. They come by every day in class to talk to me. … I hope (I am carrying on a tradition). I know my age and to carry on something that coach Shepherd carried on — she did it for a bunch of years. Can I carry it on that long? I don’t know. I am going to do it as long as I can.”
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor
Adam Minichino is the former Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.