October 15, 2011 11:41:00 PM
JACKSON -- Anna McCrary and Kasey Stanfield operate well in stealth mode.
It didn't matter they were lugging a blue cooler filled with ice that rustled as they tried to crouch down and avoid being seen by their coach.
But McCrary has been playing softball long enough for coach Tabitha Beard that she knew it didn't matter if the cooler had bells on it. She and Stanfield still would be able to sneak up on Beard because their coach was in the zone, relishing the celebration following the New Hope High School slow-pitch softball team's fifth state title in a row, and 14th in program history.
"I tried to run, but they stopped me," Beard said.
The dousing capped an up-and-down season in which New Hope lost seven games. There were struggles at the beginning, the middle, and at the end of the season. Beard tried to remain upbeat and to get the players to work through the inconsistent play, but she admitted there were times she wondered how the season would play out.
"This is a completely different team," Beard said. "I am not going to lie. There were times when I thought, 'Hmm, I don't know if they have it in them and if they can come together the way they need to.' I don't know. God showed up and showed out. It is pretty awesome."
That "awesome" feeling is one Beard never experienced as a player at New Hope. She grew up watching her older sister, Bridget Baucom, win championships in the late 1980s for coach Cary Shepherd. New Hope won its first crown in 1989 and it second in 1990. The next ones didn't come until 1997 and 2000, which explains why Beard missed out on the fun. But she learned plenty watching Shepherd and her younger sister, Rachel Baucom, fortify the tradition that has helped New Hope become the state's slow-pitch softball measuring stick. Now her New Hope program is one state title away from matching Shepherd's run of six championships in a row from 2000-05.
Senior pitcher Anna McCrary echoed the sentiments felt by Beard and her teammates when she said it was a "relief" to beat Picayune 7-6 in nine innings and 15-4 in five to clinch the title.
"It is so much fun because we worked so hard to get here," McCrary said. "It took so much work and so much time. It is one of the best feelings in the world. I have never felt this good."
McCrary and her team felt so good because they showed they were rocks. At New Hope, "being a rock" refers to remaining poised in the face of all adversity. That's why Beard peppers infielders with grounder after grounder after grounder on some what may consider a hard infield. The result is an infield of cleaners who can pick line drives with the best of them.
But that's just part of the tradition. The Lady Trojans also continue to give gift bags to opponents and sport T-shirts with motivational and inspirational sayings. They have Senior Night festivities in which younger players dress out and offer impersonations of the players in their final seasons.
Shepherd helped organize that tradition. She knew Beard would be an ideal fit to take her place when she decided it was time to retire. She wasn't sure Beard would be interested in the job.
"I said to her, 'Tabitha, I guess I am going to retire. Would you want to be the softball coach?' She said, 'Would I want to be the softball coach? That would be awesome.' "
Shepherd said the transition wasn't guaranteed. She admitted she thought Beard would be a "shoe-in" to take over the program, but after what she called "a little bit of controversy" Beard was named coach.
It's easy to see the right choice was made. Beard pushes the players. She is a stickler for the little things, like cleaning dugouts -- home and visitor -- and following through when there is a job to be done. She admits she can be demanding and tough, but she learned a lot about how she works with the players from Shepherd, who said Beard "had done a great job."
Shepherd said she often speaks to Beard about the team and is there to help Beard whenever she needs it. She feels honored her former player has continued to keep her involved in the program, and loves how the old traditions and some new ones have become part of what she and many others helped build.
Those things and the 14 state titles are reasons why the New Hope softball program continues to be a family affair.
"I think most of the girls who have been in the program really, really think it is special," Shepherd said. "I think people who have been involved in our program want their children to be in the program, even if you don't get to walk on the field just to be a part of the Lady Trojan tradition.
"When we started doing these traditions the purpose was to bring the team together and to bring the girls together and to get them to understand it is not about hitting the ball or running bases or getting somebody out. It is more than that. It is about honoring God and honoring the girls on our team and wanting to be part of something really, really special."
Thanks to Beard, that mind-set continues to drive New Hope to championships.
Adam Minichino is sports editor of The Dispatch. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.