May 6, 2014 10:53:44 AM
Adam Minichino - [email protected]
D.J. Sanders always has let her ability to do the talking.
Whether it is on the softball field or on the basketball court, the New Hope High School standout has filled a scrapbook with accomplishments and memories that would make many envious. Sanders has taken every step with a humbleness that belies the fact that her softball skills earned her a scholarship to play at Louisiana-Lafayette, one of the nation's premier programs. If it wasn't for that opportunity, Sanders likely could have used her basketball talents to play at the next level.
As she nears the end of her senior season, though, Sanders is finding a new, more vocal way, to make her presence known. As one of only five seniors on a team packed with 20 underclassmen, Sanders has led by example and has used her voice to help nurture a group of young players that is playing a key role in the team's success.
Both parts of Sanders' game were on display last week, as the she provided the vocal support and encouragement her teammates needed and earned four complete-game victories to send New Hope back to the Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 5A North State title series.
For her accomplishments, Sanders is The Dispatch's Prep Player of the Week.
"It has been a test for me most of the time," Sanders said. "I think basketball has helped me become more of a leader and being vocal, but I really didn't expect to use it so soon after that season ended. Being in the circle has made me kind of be a leader to all of the little girls around me. It is good because it is helping me and I see I am helping them, too."
New Hope (19-6-1) will play host to defending Class 5A state champion Neshoba Central at 5:30 p.m. Friday in Game 1 of the best-of-three series. Game 2 will be at 2 p.m. Saturday in Philadelphia. If needed, Game 3 would be played immediately after Game 2.
Sanders helped New Hope travel an improbable road to the North State title series, if only because it came in such a short amount of time. Following a 3-1 loss to Lewisburg on Wednesday, New Hope rallied for 9-5 and a 3-2 victories at home to advance to face Germantown. Sanders closed the series in style with a no-hitter and nine strikeouts.
Against Germantown, Sanders continued to deliver, allowing only four hits and striking out nine in Game 2. A two-run rally in the bottom of the seventh inning helped New Hope win its fourth game in three days.
New Hope coach Tabitha Beard has said several times this season that she has tried to be more patient and more encouraging with an inexperienced group of players. Despite the team's youth, she said the Lady Trojans were determined and didn't allow one mistake "turn into quicksand" and multiply into several more. She said Sanders has helped the team learn how not to fall into that pitfall by being a calming presence in the circle, the focal point of everything in fast-pitch softball.
Beard acknowledged that Sanders hasn't had an easy season and has pitched through arm soreness, but she said Sanders' emergence as a leader has enabled her to push through tough times.
"D.J. has done a good job when I get upset to come behind and say, 'Hey, we know you can do it. Keep your head up and keep working.' She seems to be a calming presence," Beard said. "In just about every rally, she has had a major role starting it. She has a calming presence no matter where it is, whether it is in the circle or at shortstop."
Said Sanders, "Sometimes after coach Beard has given the their little talking to, they need that little extra pick me up, and I have learned that, so I know after that has happened I need to go back and talk to them and calm them down so they can keep their head on straight and play well."
Beard said Sanders' ability to step into a more vocal role has been even more important this year in a season in which Kaitlin Bradley, Taylor Blevins, and R.J. James are the most experienced players on a team that is learning about the tradition that has made the New Hope softball program one of the state's best for so many years.
"She is committed," Beard said. "Even if she never says a word, her presence and the way she carries herself and the way she works and the way she pushes for perfection, it kind of makes you follow suit. She was thrown into that as a seventh-grader. She was in that rotation with Lauren (Holifield) forever. It was just her and Lauren and that is what they did. She just always took it in stride. I don't think I have ever heard her complain."
Sanders admits Beard might have not heard her complain because she is her worst critic. She said she will talk to herself and correct something as quickly as she can so it doesn't happen again. She said she has adopted that mentality after years of working with pitching coaches and her father, Donnie, to be the best she can be at shortstop or at pitcher.
This season, Sanders feels she has done well in the circle and has played a role in helping the team grow throughout the season.
"We're working well together," Sanders said. "They're listening and I am benefiting off of what they're doing as well."
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Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.