October 12, 2012 11:22:40 AM
Adam Minichino - firstname.lastname@example.org
R.J. James and Taylor Blevins are getting more and more comfortable "hitting it hard and wishing it well."
That slogan has long been the calling card of the New Hope High School slow-pitch softball team. As the No. 9 and No. 10 hitters in the lineup, the maturation of the junior outfielders has been a key to the success of this season's team.
At 2 p.m. today, New Hope (23-5) will take on Ridgeland in the second round of the Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 5A North State playoffs. New Hope, the five-time defending state champion, defeated Canton in two games Tuesday to keep its quest for the 15th championship in the program's history alive.
With more experienced players like Lauren Holifield, Kasey Stanfield, Kaitlin Bradley, and D.J. Sanders leading the way, as well as seniors Erin Stanfield and Ashley Reed, James and Blevins have provided a lift in right-center field and in right center field and at the plate.
On Tuesday, James and Blevins each had inside-the-park home runs to help New Hope earn a pair of shutouts.
"It took a little time because at first when she put me in and I wasn't playing I was kind of shaky," Blevins said. "But I am more comfortable and more confident in myself because I know if I can't do it, the team is going to have my back and we just play together, and that is what I love. That gives me a lot of confidence."
James started in ninth grade and admitted she was a "bit shaky." She erased some of that anxiety last season when she started game two of the best-of-three North State title series against Neshoba Central. She also played well in the championship series against Picayune to help the Lady Trojans earn more hardware.
New Hope coach Tabitha Beard said her confidence in James and Blevins has increased this season. It is a far cry from last season.
"They are up and down, and when they are up they are way up," Beard said. "They both seem to be whatever they are together, which is really weird. A lot of it is we have worked the last few days about seeing it and hitting it hard, especially with R.J. The more success she has, the better off she is."
stepped up big at state tournament last year
"I don't worry anymore when the ball is hit to them in the outfield," Beard said. "There was a time when I went, 'Oh God, please.' Now it has gotten to the point, especially with R.J., she has really become a good player. She is a little more confident in herself, which makes me a little more confident in her."
James and Blevins said their friendship also has helped them succeed. Not only do they know their teammates believe in them, but they said they also rely on each other for support on and off the field. That bond only helps when its their turns to "hit it hard and wish it well."
"If I go to the plate knowing I can do it, I am pretty sure I am going to do it," Blevins said. "I don't put too much on myself because I know my team believes in me, so I believe in myself."
Said James, "If I don't do it, I am pretty sure Taylor is going to do it because I am No. 9 and she is No. 10. I rely a lot on Taylor, too, if I don't do that, and I am very confident in her, and I am very confident in myself."
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.