April 16, 2013 11:00:28 AM
Adam Minichino - email@example.com
The New Hope High School fast-pitch softball team made sure to finish what it started Monday night.
Thanks to timely hitting and solid pitching and fielding by D.J. Sanders, New Hope defeated Neshoba Central 4-1 at Lady Trojan Field to clinch the Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 5A, Region 3, District 4 title.
"They recovered well, and D.J. did a good job of staying composed on the mound," New Hope coach Tabitha Beard said. "That's all I can ask for."
New Hope (19-1) outhit Neshoba Central (20-4) 10-5 but had to work its way out of tight situations in the sixth and seventh innings to secure the championship. New Hope also used some late-inning magic to beat Neshoba Central 5-3 on April 2 in Philadelphia. The Lady Trojans rallied for three runs in the top of the seventh inning to beat the Lady Rockets, who eliminated them from the Class 5A North State slow-pitch playoffs in the fall.
Lauren Holifield had three hits, including a double and a triple, and Mackenzie Harvey and Erin Stanfield had two hits to bolster a lineup that featured contributions throughout. Kaitlin Bradley had a sacrifice bunt and made a fine running catch on a bunt that was popped up in foul territory to the left of the catcher. She gathered herself after making the catch and threw to Erin Stanfield at first base to complete the double play. Taylor Blevins also had a sacrifice and reached twice on bunts. She used her speed to beat out the first one and reached on the second when her speed caused the Lady Rockets to rush a throw to first base that was dropped.
The big blow came in the third. After missing a scoring opportunity in the first following Holifield's lead-off triple and miscommunication on Bradley's bunt, Holifield singled and moved to second on a sacrifice by Bradley. Neshoba Central intentionally walked D.J. Sanders before retiring Kasey Stanfield for the second out. Harvey didn't waste any time, smacking the first pitch into the left-center field gap for a two-run single.
"(Harvey) is overly aggressive sometimes, and we have really been on her," Beard said. "The aggressiveness of the pitch is what we teach every day. You are there to hit. You're a hitter, and if it is there, you go. I was very, very proud of Mackenzie because Mackenzie's aggressiveness has been about going way too early. That is why she has been fouling them off and everybody moves out of the dugout. What was great about that hit was how Mackenzie was aggressive to the ball and she really kept her hands back and she came through well. The old Mackenzie would have been way out in front and the pitch would have been in the dugout."
Erin Stanfield helped provide insurance in the fifth with a single that scored pinch runner Savannah Britt, who took over for Harvey after her single. Kaitlin Oswalt, who singled, later scored on a wild pitch.
That was all the offense Sanders needed. The junior right-hander struck out seven through five innings. She ran into trouble in the sixth after walking two with one out. A single by Kayla Robertson scored Hailey Lunderman and put runners on second and third. But Sanders helped her cause by making a fine play on a dribbler in front of the plate off the bat of Kayla McKinion. Sanders said she thought third baseman Bradley would be there, but when she realized it was her play to make she hustled over, collected the ball, and fired it without making a step.
"In the seventh, there is not another pitcher in the state that makes that play she made," Neshoba Central coach Trae Embry said. "She made two plays on balls that would have kept innings alive."
Sanders struck out the final batter to close the sixth. In the seventh, she recorded the first out on another slow roller in front of the circle. After a walk, she used a changeup for a strikeout and the second out. Following a single, she retired Lunderman, the lead-off hitter, on a groundout to set off the celebration that finished another title.
After the game, Sanders said New Hope still sat on a lead in the middle innings but that it overcame its past history of not being able to put teams away.
"Compared to how I pitched Friday (in a 6-2 victory against Quitman), it was a lot better," Sanders said. "I struggled keeping the ball over the plate when I had two strikes, so I was trying to work on pitching not as many strikes. I guess I did better."
Embry credited Sanders for pitching a fine game, but he said his hitters weren't as disciplined early in the game as they need to be against a power pitcher. He said the Lady Rockets swung at better pitches late in the game and put the ball into play more, which led to chances to make the game even closer. He felt one more hit or another call that went his team's way could have turned the momentum.
"Credit to her, she throws the crap out of it. She is good," Embry said. "We had runners on in each of the last two innings, we just don't get the hit. Credit to her. She gets the strikeout. We have to be more disciplined. We're sitting here playing all ninth- and 10th-graders. My starting catcher is out for the year, and we have re-arranged a lot of the things we're doing. That's fine. That's part of it. Credit to New Hope. Coach Beard does a great job, and D.J. had a great ballgame."
Beard agreed and said it is difficult to lose with Sanders in the circle or at shortstop, where she plays when Holifield is in the circle. Beard mentioned a play Sanders made behind second base that left fans scratching their heads wondering how she had the range to make that play from shortstop.
"D.J. is very fast. More than anything, D.J is quick," Beard said. "She thinks well on her feet. It was so funny that right after that play because in practice she said she has to work on releasing the ball better. She said, 'I need to be able to throw the ball harder.' I asked her how hard do you want to throw it. That is what makes D.J. Sanders what she is. (She has the mentality) I need to do better at that, and is something she works on. It is awesome to watch her go. It excites me. It is a great thing to see."
n On Saturday, New Hope defeated Caledonia 16-1 at the New Hope tournament. Six teams scheduled to participate in the event weren't able to show up due to commitments to play district games.
Holifield, Bradley, and R.J. James had two hits to lead the attack in the four-and-a-half-inning game, which was called due to the mercy rule.
Holifield, who also had three RBIs, pitched five innings and allowed two hits. She struck out six. Harvey had three RBIs, while Bradley added two.
n Central Academy softball team wins two games: At Macon, the Central Academy slow-pitch softball team defeated Kemper Academy 11-1 Friday and beat Winona Christian 14-7 on Tuesday.
Against Kemper Academy, Blake Rigdon and Sarah Norris had three singles, Paige Buchanan had a triple and a single, Sadie Lindsey, Cassie Campbell, and Kayla Brown had two singles, and Savanah Stapleton, Kelsey Robbins, and Courtney Gaylord had singles.
The Lady Vikings committed only one fielding error.
Campbell was the winning pitcher. She allowed two hits and had four strikeouts.
Against Winona, Stapleton had three hits, including a double and a triple, Rigdon had three hits, including a double, Robbins and Brown had three hits, Gaylord had two hits, including a double, Lindsey and Campbell had two hits, and Neely Abrams had a single.
Central Academy overcame six errors to get the victory thanks to five-run innings in the third and seventh.
Campbell was the winning pitcher.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.