April 16, 2009
MABEN -- Bill Brand isn''t feeling any pressure.
The East Webster High School fast-pitch softball coach has earned a degree of confidence after helping lead the program to Class 1A state titles the past two seasons.
The championships came on the heels of a state title in 2006 when Dallas Ferguson was the team''s coach.
The only pressure Brand might face is finding a spot on the outfield wall to fit another state championship sign.
Brand won''t have to worry about that dilemma if East Webster doesn''t clear its next three hurdles en route to a fourth consecutive state title.
Today, East Webster (22-6) will attempt to take the first step when it plays host to Stringer in game one of the best-of-three third-round Class 1A state playoff series.
In Class 2A, Hamilton (11-10) will try to build off a 20-5 victory against Baldwyn at 6 p.m. today when it takes on Eupora in its best-of-three third-round series.
Brand said there hasn''t been much difference in his team''s run to a state championship this season compared to his first two. He said past successes don''t give any guarantees for future glory, which is why the team remains focused on getting the job done and adding to its resume.
"We have had a good run of student-athletes who have done everything that the coaches ask, and, in many cases, more," Brand said. It starts with them. I don''t think they put any pressure on themselves as far as living up to what we have done in the past. I think they definitely want to meet their expectations. I don''t think there is any more pressure there than there was in 2006 when the run started for us. They just want to leave it all on the field and play as hard as they can and make sure that they have given it there best when the day is over."
Brand said many of this year''s seniors were seventh-graders when the fast-pitch program started. He said seniors Jessica Halterman (pitcher), Darlynda Wilson (first baseman), Caitlyn Williamson (designated player), Iyeshia Thomas (right fielder), and Jordan Sisk (catcher, who transferred from Houston High last year) have provided the example he hopes a talented group of younger players will emulate.
Third baseman Swayze Hollenhead, shortstop Cayley McClelland, second baseman Chloe Roberson, pitcher Kate Moreland, center fielder Jessica Flemings, and right fielder Michaela White round out a talented cast.
"We have improved in all areas of our game," Brand said. "When you pitch it the way a Kate Moreland can pitch it or a Jessica Halterman can pitch it and you give them five or six runs, it makes it tough to beat us."
Hamilton coach Jason Cobb hopes his team can keep its hitting shoes on after returning to action after a lengthy delay. The Lady Lions, who received a first-round bye, didn''t play for nearly two weeks before being stretched to three games by Baldwyn.
Cobb said Eupora, which eliminated his team from the fast-pitch state tournament last year, will present a challenge, but he feels his players are ready.
"I really think the girls are hungry and want to continue on," Cobb said. "Hopefully they will continue to play with that same fire. If we do that I think we will be in pretty good shape."
Buoyed by a seven-run first inning, Hamilton built a big lead and didn''t allow Baldwyn a chance to rally.
Caitlyn Atkins and Kelle West had RBI singles in the first inning.
Hamilton added to the lead with a two-run double by winning pitcher Shelby Savage (six strikeouts), a two-run single by Miranda McCormick, and a two-run single by Lexus Jordan (3-for-3).
Cobb expressed some concern about how his players would respond to the long delay. The Lady Lions won game one of the series before their offense didn''t produce in game two.
Cobb said he felt pretty good about his team''s chances considering it didn''t play well and still had a chance to clinch the series in game two. He said his team''s experience gives him confidence.
"It just seemed like our focus was back," Cobb said. "I guess (it''s similar) to when you put a wild animal into a corner. We have been there before during the playoffs and during the season. This group is a veteran group, and most of them were starters last year. It seems like this group, even last year, has known when it can turn it on they could. It makes me feel good that back there somewhere is a little bit more in the reserve tank, and they seemed to be able to turn that on (Tuesday night)."
The performance was enjoyable considering Cobb and his players have gone through what he described as a "roller coaster" ride in the regular season. Hamilton played higher classification teams tough at the Tupelo tournament in March but didn''t win a game. He said the team went through a stretch when it didn''t hit well, and when it hit well another part of the equation would suffer.
Cobb said errors also have hurt the team in losses to Mooreville and Mantachie. Still, he looks back in the scorebook and knows that many of those games would have been different if one or two plays are made.
And while the record might have suffered, Cobb hopes the tough competition his team has faced will give it an edge the rest of the way in the Class 2A state playoffs.
"We heard the ''We''re tied of losing comments,'' but I guess we were lucky to win some good games and some close games without losing too many in a row," Cobb said. "We tried to tell the kids we lost to some very good teams and it was just something here or there in some of those games. We did have times during season when we struggled with intensity at practice because of some of that. I think the veterans and the older ones realized this is going to pay off and now it is coming true to for them. They''re having lots of fun enjoying it right now."
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.