August 17, 2010 9:06:00 AM
Adam Minichino - email@example.com
Anna McCrary thought her coach was crazy.
Sure, she slugged a pitch to the bottom of the fence for an easy extra-base hit, but McCrary didn''t think she was quick enough to make it home for an inside-the-park home run.
Tabitha Beard thought differently.
The New Hope High School slow-pitch softball coach had a feeling McCrary was going to get there, so she waved the junior outfielder around third base and kept her fingers crossed.
For good measure, Beard encouraged McCrary to get down, or to slide, when she approached home plate to increase her chances of being safe.
The slide left McCrary with a scuffed and bloodied knee -- thanks to a ripped sliding sleeve -- and an accomplishment that made the weekend a little more bearable.
The home run McCrary hit in the New Hope High''s victory against Ridgeland on Saturday at the Eupora High tournament came one day before the one-year anniversary of the death of her father, Thomas Ambrose "Tub" McCrary, who died Aug. 15, 2009, after a year-long battle with cancer. He was 52.
"Every time I go up I think about how he tells me, ''Don''t focus on anything but the ball. Just focus. Do your job,'' " said McCrary, The Dispatch''s Prep Player of the Week. "It was the day before the anniversary, and I really wasn''t in the best of moods. Everyone was kind of getting on my nerves and I was trying to play my hardest and keep my heart focused on that. I think he was with me during that to help calm me down and so he could give me a little more pep to help me through that."
McCrary admits it has been difficult losing her father because he taught her so much, especially in the game of softball. They shared their love for the game, and McCrary honors him by drawing a sign of the cross in the dirt before her at-bats.
This year, McCrary feels she has learned from the ordeal and is more mature for it. She has struggled at times masking her true emotions so she appears strong to her teammates.
"When it first happened I was like, ''Uhhh, I have to go to softball,'' " McCrary said. "I was playing ever since I was 3 years old and he had me outside throwing a baseball. It was hard for me to come back, but I am glad stuck with it. I did have thoughts that I am going to quit and that there is no point in me playing because he is not here.
"But I knew that he wanted me to keep playing, so I felt the need to keep playing, and I am very glad I did. It keeps me motivated and it keeps me attached to that feeling and that connection we had."
Beard has seen McCrary mature as a leader. She first started coaching her in the seventh grade when McCrary was one of the "babies" she inherited when she took over the program. She said she never has asked McCrary to give her best effort and that she feels McCrary has taken on a stronger role in the field and in life.
"To watch her take it on with such ease and grace, you would never know from an outward appearance (what she has been through)," Beard said. "I notice sometimes when she gets down or things are going bad because I have been around her for so long. If you didn''t, you would never know anything was wrong. That to me is a sign of maturity. Sometimes it comes a little too soon, especially for kids in that situation, but she has handled it well, at least on the outside. You just have to remember she is a kid and love her and hug her every now and then."
Beard believes the New Hope players understand what McCrary lives with and that they respect her even more for it. She said everyone on the team realized the significance of this past weekend and that it was special to see McCrary have a great start to the season.
McCrary hopes she continues to set the example Beard expects from her. She feels she has grown as a leader and will keep doing what it takes -- even rounding third base and going for home when she might not think she can make it -- to help her team.
"It is kind of hard because everyone says, ''You''re so strong,'' but deep down I am not," McCrary said. "Sometimes it is just a show because you don''t want to put it out there. But I do feel like I have become more of a leader because he did teach me the correct way and to respect your coach and your teammates. I try to preach that to other people and to stay at 100 percent and (tell them) to put your heart into it."
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.