September 11, 2012 11:33:36 PM
The screams reverberating from the bus as it left Lady Trojan Field on Tuesday night reflect the intensity of the rivalry between the Neshoba Central and New Hope high school slow-pitch softball teams.
Last year, Lauren Holifield's walk-off three-run home to left-center field in the bottom of the seventh inning catapulted New Hope past Neshoba Central in the Class 5A North State championship series. New Hope then defeated Picayune for its fifth state title in a row, and 14th overall.
On Tuesday, Neshoba Central gave notice it won't go quietly this season, scoring four runs in the top of the seventh inning to beat the Lady Trojans 6-2.
"It's fireworks," said first-year Neshoba Central coach Trae Embry, when asked what he knew about the Neshoba Central-New Hope rivalry. "It's always a battle when you come here. Coach (Tabitha) Beard does a great job and they always have a good team, and you expect to have to play your best."
Neshoba Central (11-2, 3-0 Class 5A, Region 1) outhit New Hope (14-4, 1-1) 14-11 to win the first meeting in the regular season between the schools. The Lady Rockets scored two runs in the fifth inning and then had five hits in the seventh-inning uprising to give Embry, who spent more than a decade as softball coach at Eupora High, his first victory against New Hope at his new school. The rematch will be next week in Philadelphia.
Embry knew New Hope used Holifield's walk-off bomb to eliminate Neshoba Central in the North State title series. He also realized earlier this season New Hope smacked 13 home runs in two games, including 11 in a victory against Union at the Eupora High tournament. New Hope didn't hit any home runs Tuesday, although Holifield's double in the bottom of the first left a dent up high on the center-field fence.
"They have all kind of power on that team," Embry said. "We were just lucky tonight that they didn't hit any out of here."
Holifield's blast didn't amount to as much as it could have. The senior left-center fielder scored on an infield error, but New Hope had a runner erased at home plate and another erased in between second and third on the same rundown. Neshoba Central nearly pulled the triple play, but the first baseman had the ball knocked out of her glove on the tag play at first.
"That is my fault. I am going to take credit for that," Beard said. "I shouldn't have sent D.J. She hesitated a little. I should have thought more with no outs, but it is one of those things that happen and you learn from it and move on."
Mallory Tucker led off the top of the seventh with a single. Hailey Lunderman followed with a double that burned Holifield, who got twisted the wrong way, in left-center field. Katlyn Duke then doubled under a diving R.J. James in right-center field to give the Lady Rockets the lead. An infield hit and two sacrifice flies accounted for the rest of the scoring, as New Hope committed three errors in the inning.
New Hope added its other run in the third on a sacrifice fly by Kaitlin Bradley. Unfortunately, New Hope couldn't get a solid hit in the sixth and seventh innings when it had runners in scoring position.
"That is a good hitting team," Beard said. "They hit the ball well when they needed to and we didn't. ... You have to hit with them, and we didn't.
"I feel we got anxious. When we were hitting the ball well, we were relaxed at the plate. We were picking good pitches and doing the things we needed to do to be successful. When we got anxious at the plate we reached a little bit and we got under the ball, but we have some spots in the lineup that are going to have to step up."
The miscues didn't eclipse an otherwise sparkling defensive effort by the Lady Trojans. Holifield made two fine plays ranging deep into the outfield, right fielder Taylor Blevins threw out a runner at first base, shortstop D.J. Sanders ranged to her left to snare a line drive, left fielder Ashley Reed backed up a ball that deflected off Sanders' glove and threw out a runner at second base, James made a fine catch in right-center field, and Reed made a diving catch on a sinking line drive in foul territory in front of the fence.
"We have come so far defensively," Beard said. "That was amazing. ... I couldn't be more proud of them. We know we didn't hit well, and we will. But defensively we have been looking for that all year.
"I feel we turned a big corner. We dug a hole. It is not a big hole. It is not a hole we can't get out of. We have to keep working on what we're going to be. I don't think we have seen, by far, from this tear, I am incredibly proud of the effort. We made a couple of mistakes, but I have always told them if you give 110 percent and make a mistake, it is one of those things that happens."
While Beard feels the loss will spark her team, Embry believes the victory will give his team confidence.
"It gives us motivation for the rest of the season, and it gives us momentum," Embry said. "It shows them they can play on their level.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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