June 11, 2018 11:14:11 AM
Adam Minichino - [email protected]
DJ Sanders never has been one to celebrate her accomplishments.
The former New Hope High School multi-sport standout prefers to hone the skills that have made her one of the nation's best softball players. That's why Sunday was a perfect time for Sanders to relax and to visit with friends, coaches, teammates, and supporters at a going-away bash at the New Hope Community Center.
"I see it as an opportunity to re-connect with a bunch of people who helped me get to where I am without the coaches I have had and my parents and anybody who has gone out of their way to help me," Sanders said Saturday. "I don't think I would have not received an opportunity to play professionally or travel halfway across the country. That's what makes it so cool because I know for a fact I didn't do it by myself and I couldn't have done it without the support I had."
The gathering was organized by Sanders' family in an effort help send off the former Lowndes County All-Star who will join the professional ranks later this week when she joins the National Pro Fastpitch's Chicago Bandits. In April, the Bandits used the 21st overall pick to select Sanders in the league's annual draft. Sanders was taken with the fourth pick of the fourth round.
"It is weird because I don't think in high school (playing professional softball) was a dream I had," Sanders said. "I don't know if I thought I would be able to do it."
Sanders also wasn't sure if she would realize a collegiate dream to play in the Women's College World Series in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, after she transferred from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette to Oregon in November 2017 following the firing of coach Mike Lotief. But Sanders handled the transition to one of the nation's premier softball conferences (Pac-12) and capped her collegiate career by hitting .281 in 63 games (62 starts) for the Ducks, who finished 53-10. Sanders was second on the team in home runs (16), RBIs (51), slugging percentage (.614), and total bases (105).
Oregon went 1-2 at the WCWS. It lost to eventual national champion Florida State. Sanders was 0-for-7 with a run scored and two walks in Oklahoma City.
Despite being a key contributor in the offense and on the field, Sanders said she was disappointed with her performance at the WCWS because she said she "played terrible."
"It was really nice," Sanders said of playing at the WCWS. "Going there we had expectations to do better than we did. ... I think a lot of people were disappointed with their performance, especially me."
Sanders said she signed her professional contract Friday and is eager to start the next chapter in her softball career because she isn't ready for it to end. She doesn't know if she will have additional chances to represent the United States on the National Team, but she said the chance to play against some of the best players in the world will help her stay sharp.
Sanders said she hopes some things she had shipped from Oregon back to Mississippi will arrive in time so she can take them with her when she leaves Tuesday for Chicago. She said she has family in Chicago, so she is excited for the opportunity to re-connect with them once she gets settled. Once she does, Sanders said she plans to continue to work hard to improve. She said she improved in several areas -- short game, defensively -- in her time at Oregon.
Still, she admitted her offensive numbers this past season were a little lower than her expectations. She said her adjustment at the plate had to do with what she called "progressive" changes to her swing during the season. Sanders said not having the same hitting coach who worked with her for her first three seasons made the adjustment a little tougher.
Sanders was named the Sun Belt Conference Player of the Year and one of 10 finalists for national player of the year after a junior season in which she led the NCAA with 29 home runs and 82 RBIs. She hit a career-high .388, posted a .524 on-base percentage, and had a NCAA-best 1.013 slugging percentage. She also drew 46 walks and struck out only 27 times. Sanders started all 55 games at shortstop and made only seven errors.
Sanders also was a first-team All-Sun Belt Conference pick in 2017 and 2016. She played for the USA Softball junior national team in 2015. She entered her senior season with 51 home runs and 167 RBIs.
Looking back, Sanders said she wished Lotief wouldn't have been fired, but she said she feels she grew as a player at Oregon.
"My numbers may not have shown it, but I became a better all-around player from going up there," Sanders said.
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Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.