New Hope High School softball coach Casey Finch Halford knows it’s been a long time since the Trojans last made it this far into the postseason.
How long, exactly? Finch Halford isn’t quite sure.
Junior Emma O’Bryant and sophomore Kensley Woolbright told their coach the Trojans last made it this far — to the north state semifinals — four years ago, when O’Bryant’s sister Anna Kate and Woolbright’s sister Meredith were seniors. But that playoff run turned out to be in slow-pitch softball rather than fast-pitch.
So Finch Halford isn’t concerned with the past as the Trojans prepare themselves to face Saltillo in their MHSAA Class 5A third-round playoff series. She’s locked in on the present — and looking to the future — while leading a young team without a single senior.
“We lost a lot of kids last year,” Finch Halford said. “I don’t think these kids thought that they had it in them.”
A tough start to the season against strong competition exacerbated the Trojans’ struggles of inexperience. New Hope lost four games in a row after winning its first and later suffered a five-game losing streak, including tournament play in Gulf Shores, Alabama.
Then the Trojans got hot. They won six games in a row, beating Region 2-5A foe West Point twice and defeating Hatley, Starkville, Columbus and Hamilton while ultimately finishing with a 4-2 division record and the No. 2 seed.
Finch Halford said she’s watched her players come to realize the talent in their dugout and play accordingly the past few weeks.
“The more exciting part has been watching them realize: ‘Hey, we’re a pretty dang good team,’” she said.
‘We’ve got to win now’
Just take Thursday’s decisive Game 3 of a second-round series at Vicksburg. After Finch Halford lodged a protest with the Mississippi High School Activities Association regarding the game balls used by the Gators in the original third game — a Trojans loss April 27 — the MHSAA ordered the contest replayed.
It was a decision she said she didn’t expect after talking Tuesday night with three experienced softball coaches. Each of them assured Finch Halford she’d filed the protest the correct way — notifying the home-plate umpire and Vicksburg’s game administrator, taking pictures of the three Wilson game balls that lacked the official MHSAA stamp and playing the rest of the contest under protest — but all three warned her that she was still unlikely to win.
Finch Halford returned with the team at 2:30 a.m. Wednesday, unsure what the future held.
“I didn’t know if I was going to sit my kids down the next day and tell them if that was it or if we were going to play again,” she said.
Around 9 a.m., Finch Halford heard from the state’s governing body that her protest had been upheld. Game 3 would happen again at 5:30 p.m. Thursday in Vicksburg.
New Hope had new life — and more on the line than ever.
“They had all the pressure against them to prove why they should be the team advancing,” Finch Halford said.
But the coach admitted she was more scared than her players were.
“I think they were like, ‘Holy cow, our coach just won this protest, and we’ve got to win now,’” Finch Halford said. “They played lights out, and it was amazing.”
Amid a “sea of green” 250 strong lining the bleachers and the huge hill above center field at Vicksburg’s home stadium, New Hope capitalized on mistake after mistake to capture the win. O’Bryant’s bunt single that ended up scoring two runners and leaving her at third sparked a six-run rally in the fifth inning as the Trojans broke a 3-3 tie, escaping with a 9-6 victory to advance.
Finch Halford admitted she wasn’t sure what to expect heading into the contest after the dramatics of having Game 3 replayed, but she credited Vicksburg’s administration and local law enforcement for ensuring a calm but spirited atmosphere in the stadium.
“They cheered for their kids,” she said. “Our fans cheered for our kids. It was really the best-case scenario in a situation like that.”
No end in sight
But New Hope’s work is far from over yet.
The series win over the Gators gave the Trojans a north half semifinal date with a Saltillo team New Hope has faced twice in 2021. The Tigers won both meetings — a 2-1 contest March 1 in Saltillo and a 3-1 return game April 13 in New Hope.
Finch Halford knows enough about her opponents to know the mistakes the Trojans have made at times this season can’t be repeated if New Hope is to advance once again.
“Saltillo is very well coached,” Finch Halford said. “You can’t have errors when you play against a team like Saltillo.”
Instead, what the Trojans must do is pitch effectively, field soundly and remain vigilant of everything going on — Tigers seeking extra bases or looking to bait the New Hope defense into miscues. That aggressive baserunning paid off for the Trojans against Vicksburg, but Finch Halford knows Saltillo coach Lee Buse is smart enough to deploy it against her team.
“You really can’t have any errors, and you’ve got to be consciously aware of the next play,” she said.
Finch Halford has no idea how the series will go, but she knows New Hope — which once faced long odds to get to this point — is ready for it.
The night after their original Game 3 with Vicksburg, the Trojans huddled in the grass. They didn’t yet know the result of their coach’s protest, but a prevailing sentiment arose: “We don’t feel like this is where we end.”
Ultimately, the Trojans were correct.
Now, they need to be right again.