October 8, 2012 9:41:09 PM
It's finally here.
That's the weight New Hope High School seniors Lauren Holifield, Kasey and Erin Stanfield, and Ashley Reed have felt all season as the slow-pitch softball team worked its way through the regular season.
In many ways, the first two-plus months of the season were a lot like past seasons. There were ups and downs, especially at the plate. In past years, the Lady Trojans always found a way to peak at the right time. Tangible evidence of that success can be found on the outfield wall of Lady Trojan Field. The signs detail the program's run of five consecutive slow-pitch state titles, and 14 in all.
At 3 p.m. today, New Hope will begin defense of its crown when it plays host to Canton in a best-of-three Mississippi High School Activities Association North State playoff series. The winner of today's series will advance to the play Ridgeland at 2 p.m. Saturday. The winner of that series will move on to the North State title series for a chance to play for a state title.
"It is bittersweet," third baseman Kasey Stanfield said. "We want it so bad, but we know we're going to have to work for it. I know we can do it."
Last season, New Hope defeated Neshoba Central in the North State championship series in Philadelphia and then swept to wrap up another title.
This season, New Hope (21-5) enters the postseason with a better record than last season, a point New Hope coach Tabitha Beard said not many people believe considering the expectations that faced the team at the beginning of the season. Even though Neshoba Central defeated New Hope twice to win the district, Beard said the Lady Trojans really aren't in too different of a situation as they try to get back to Jackson.
"When I looked at the group of girls I had coming back, I think I got a little overzealous maybe on the year," Beard said. "Sometimes you just have to remember they still are teenage girls and they are going to make mistakes and things are going to happen.
"The biggest thing is I didn't feel like the intensity that needed to be there was there. We have struggled with that all year. At the end of the day, I had to take a step back and say, 'Hey, we do have a better record, we might not be in the same position we have been the whole time, but it is what it is.' We talked a lot about it Saturday that we have a job to do, and whether we come in here undefeated and No. 1 in the district or we come in here with five losses and second in district, the job is still the same and we have to focus on the job at hand."
New Hope prepared for Canton with an 11-1 victory against Mooreville on Saturday. Mooreville was one of the teams that defeated New Hope earlier in the season. Beard feels her players are in the right frame of mind and had a strong defensive effort Monday at practice to begin their journey.
"I felt we got beat by teams we shouldn't have been beat by, and we played well in spurts, but we have to get all of that together," Beard said. "I hope they have done that."
Stanfield acknowledged the team faced a lot of expectations and might have allowed mistakes to get it down at points in the season. She said she remembers the feeling she had in her stomach when the team lost to Neshoba Central for the second time this season. She plans to use that feeling as motivation throughout the postseason.
Mix in the burden the seniors felt knowing that all of the seniors before them won state titles in their final season playing the sport and it can be a overwhelming feeling.
"I know I put a lot of pressure on myself," Stanfield said. "It is kind of like, 'What will people think if we don't do it?' There are a lot of expectations on us and a lot of pressure, but at the end of the day it is how bad do you want it?"
Holifield said the fact that the team lost only one key contributor -- Anna McCrary -- from the 2011 team and that it has to live up to its tradition of being "the big, bad New Hope." Stanfield and Holifield said they hope to draw on the experience they have gained from previous championship runs if the get the chance to play Neshoba Central again.
Before New Hope gets there, though, it has work to do, which the players recognize and are ready to tackle.
Beard said the team went back to the basics in an attempt to find consistency hitting. She said the team is swinging the bat harder and has gone from smaller to larger in batting practice to try to stay relaxed and not be overanxious at the plate.
The true test will come today because the waiting is finally over.
"They were down on themselves a little bit about the whole district thing," Beard said. "It is just one of those things where you have to pick yourself up and move forward. I think they have done a good job with that. They seemed to have been a lot more focused."
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.