October 15, 2013 8:48:51 PM
Scott Walters - firstname.lastname@example.org
Saltillo High School softball players had a real simple game plan -- to not let New Hope's D.J. Sanders beat them.
The plan did not work because Sanders sure got a lot of help from her friends.
Batting behind Sanders, Mackenzie Harvey and Kelsey Gerhart combined for five hits and five RBIs as New Hope beat Saltillo 10-0 to clinch an opening-round series in the Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 5A/6A North State playoffs Tuesday night at Lady Trojan Field.
New Hope started the best-of-three series sweep with a 3-0 win in the opener.
"That is the job for Mac (Harvey) and me," said Gerhart, a freshman third baseman for the Lady Trojans. "We are supposed to get up there and drive in runs. D.J. is such a great player . It is our job to be more like her at the plate and to make the other team pay for putting her own."
New Hope will host Neshoba Central in a second-round playoff series Saturday. A game time is expected to be finalized later today.
Against Saltillo, Harvey batting clean-up said she did not feel pressure and instead a determination. Batting in the third spot in the order, Sanders was intentionally walked in all four at-bats.
"D.J. is such a great hitter that we are never surprised when (they walk her)," said Harvey, a sophomore catcher. "We just get up there and try to drive in runs. We did a lot better job of hitting the ball in the second game, instead of the first one."
New Hope (20-2) has played well defensively throughout the season. That was evident again Tuesday when second baseman Kaitlin Bradley had two outstanding plays to preserve the shutout in the opener. In the second game, freshman Anna Kate O'Bryant pitched her team in and out of trouble repeatedly. Saltillo had nine hits but stranded 11 base runners.
"Defense is always something we can fall back on," New Hope coach Tabitha Beard said. "We are solid there and have been all year. Offensively, we are still trying to put it all together. I thought we did a better job of getting hits at critical times in the second game."
Last season, Neshoba Central stopped New Hope's state championship run at five straight. Despite lots youth sprinkled up and down the roster, the Lady Trojans made defense an emphasis from the first couple of practices.
"Coach Beard has always stressed defense," said Gerhart, who also had a great play to snuff a Saltillo threat with the bases loaded in the third inning. "Offense can win you some games, but defense is what will when you the championship. So we have worked hard on our defensive drills from the first week of practice. Now is the time for the offense to step up thought if we want to keep winning."
New Hope collected 12 hits in is series-clinching win. Bradley also had two hits and two RBIs, as New Hope put together four-run innings in the fourth and sixth innings to win by the run-rule. Chelsey Ray also had multiple hits.
Still, New Hope knows it offensive game must step up even another level to win the three additional rounds necessary to garner the school's 15th state championship.
"We have to hit the ball from the top to the bottom of the lineup," Harvey said. "Everybody is excited that we won, but they know that we will have to play a lot better to win the championship. Everybody is going to play good defense and run the bases smart. When we have runners on and we have a chance at a big inning, we have to take advantage of that."
Beard is well aware of the limitations of her team. She is also aware that the team has not played its best softball yet. With five seniors leading the way, the talented sophomore and freshman classes will have to step up and make major contributions, starting Saturday.
"We will keep working and getting better," Beard said. "We will have a big challenge Saturday."
Gerhart feels like she and her teammates will be ready.
"We are excited about winning games in the playoffs," Gerhart said. "We have come a long way since the first part of the season. We have some confidence and we know what we need to do. We will be excited about a chance to come out here Saturday to try to win another series."
Follow Scott Walters on Twitter @dispatchscott.
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter