January 5, 2013 11:39:20 PM
Adam Minichino - [email protected]
It takes only a few moments for Lauren Holifield to find a suitable answer when she is asked how long she has been playing softball.
When you've been brought up on fields and you have a sister and a mother who have played for as long as they can remember, forever seems like an appropriate response.
Forever also feels like the length of time Holifield has been a presence at Lady Trojan Field. She started her journey as a seventh-grader and since then has been an integral part of the New Hope High School slow- and fast-pitch softball programs.
Holifield was such an important piece of the puzzle this season many teams didn't give her the chance to beat them. That strategy was on display for the final time in the Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 5A North State title series. After Holifield hit two home runs in the game one of the best-of-three series, Neshoba Central High coach Trae Embry opted to intentionally walk Holifield, who was hitting leadoff. He followed that formula in game two, only to take a chance he regretted when Holifield hit a grand slam.
Holifield didn't get another chance to swing. The senior outfielder was intentionally walked for the rest of game three and each at-bat in game three, which Neshoba Central won 15-13 to end New Hope's run of five consecutive state championships.
For her dominating performance at the plate, Holifield is The Dispatch's All-Area Slow-Pitch Player of the Year.
Holifield's dominance comes from hours of hard work and practice. Some of her first memories involve softball, whether it was watching her mother, Connie Sharpe, or her sister, Tori, play the game.
"It is like God, family, and then softball," Holifield said of where softball is in her life." It has always been there. I don't know any different. It is like a lifestyle."
Softball's place in Holifield's life has meant taking pitching lessons, playing throughout the summer on travel teams, and coming to the field on off days to work on her game. She smiles when she remembers all of the times she, Ashley Reed, and Kasey and Erin Stanfield -- also known as "The Fantastic Four" -- haunted Lady Trojan Field on nights when their peers were doing other things, or doing more conventional things people would consider "fun."
For Holifield, fun is being on the softball field. She has pitched with a bandana on her forehead that would make some samurai jealous. This season, she transitioned to the outfield and displayed her knack for the game by reading balls off the bat and tracking them down. She also assumed a bigger leadership role, even though she continued to play with a quiet confidence.
"I don't know if I would think it was fun because when I am not really good at something I get frustrated," Holifield said. "But I guess it makes me want to work harder to be good at it, so even if it wasn't fun I probably would still be up there trying to get better."
Holifield remembers her first year playing slow-pitch softball. Growing up with fast-pitch softball, Holifield said it was "really hard" slowing everything down to hit. The progression came full circle this season when Holifield could only stroll to the plate, pause, and walk to first base with an intentional walk.
A year ago, the memory of a walk-off home run that Holifield hit to send New Hope past Neshoba Central in the North State title series.
"It was very frustrating," Holifield said. "But they were telling me you should be proud and happy that you're helping your team because every time you get up you have at least one person on base. But it felt I could have helped my team more. It made me think if I would have made an out one time I would have been able to help my team more."
New Hope coach Tabitha Beard helped the team in so many ways. She said Holifield hit better than .600 and had a slugging percentage of more than .900. She said Holifield hit 21 home runs in 2011 and thinks she hit 23 this season. She knew Holifield had the potential to do big things from the first game she played in against Grenada when she was a seventh-grader.
"She has a swagger," Beard said. "She has kind of an air about her and she demands attention. When you see her play her presence demands attention."
Beard admits Holifield's "swagger" sometimes is perceived as arrogance, but she said confidence, not cockiness, is the foundation of Holifield's game. She said the hard work Holifield has invested in her game allows her to carry herself with the air of an impact player.
"Her results speak louder than anything she can say," Beard said.
Sharpe, who works with Beard as an assistant coach for the slow- and fast-pitch programs, said the time she has spent with Lauren at the field has brought them closer together. She, too, started playing softball when she was 6 years old in Birmingham, Ala. Her high school didn't have softball, so she played soccer and volleyball and had to save time for softball in the summer. She went on to play softball for two years at Mississippi State University (1984-86) before the school dropped the sport. She completed her collegiate career at the Mississippi University for Women.
Looking back, Sharpe said her travels as a coach paved the way for Tori and Lauren to follow in her footsteps.
"It is something me and my dad shared, and it is something we did to bring us close and spend time," Sharpe said. "(Lauren's) first little toy was a Tee-Ball with a ball on it that she couldn't knock off at first. ... They were in the dugout when I was still playing. (Lauren) started playing tournament ball when she was 8."
It might seem like forever, especially with Holifield nearing the next step of her softball journey. Even though it hasn't been that long, Sharpe said she has enough memories of Tori and Lauren to last her that long. She hopes, too, that both of her daughters will be able to share the sport with their children just as she has shared it with them.
"Words can't describe it, the closeness we have with something we shared growing up," Sharpe said. "We spent hours in the yard when she was little. I would make her pitch without a batter there and she would have to throw to strike seven batters out. She would have to throw three strikes before she threw four balls.
"In our backyard, I made up a pitching rubber and built a little fence for a backstop and got the mound laid down. It was just a time to share and a time we could do things together. Words couldn't take the memories away we have shared."
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.