October 17, 2012 1:24:03 AM
The New Hope High School slow-pitch softball team has prided itself on being the program that has had all the answers in its run of five consecutive state championships.
The Neshoba Central Lady Rockets ended that streak Tuesday night by delivering better answers and by following a strategy first-year coach Trae Embry put in place in July when he took over the program.
Neshoba Central's ability to hit the ball to the right side up and down the lineup resulted in four home runs in a 15-13 victory in game three of the best-of-three Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 5A North State title series at Lady Trojan Field.
Neshoba Central (25-5) will advance to play Wayne County for the Class 5A state title on Saturday at Freedom Ridge Park in Ridgeland. New Hope ends its season at 26-7.
"It wasn't in the cards," New Hope coach Tabitha Beard said. "That is going to be one of the questions I am going to have for God one day in heaven. He has other plans, and you have to keep your head up."
Trailing 12-2 in the bottom of the sixth inning, New Hope rallied without a home run. R.J. James singled and Taylor Blevins walked. Embry then intentionally walked leadoff hitter Lauren Holifield and No. 2 hitter D.J. Sanders to force in a run and extend the game into the seventh. Kaitlin Bradley hit a sacrifice fly to bring home another run before Kasey Stanfield, Erin Stanfield, and Mackenzie Harvey followed with singles and Ashley Reed added a two-run double. Kaitlin Oswalt also had an RBI single.
New Hope could have had more than six runs in the inning, but Sanders was erased at second base when she didn't notice Kasey Stanfield's single wasn't caught and she retreated toward first base.
Neshoba Central answered with three runs in the top of the seventh to give it the cushion it needed in the bottom half of the inning. New Hope's first six batters reached, including Holifield, who was intentionally walked all five plate appearances, and Sanders, who was intentionally walked four times. Sanders hit a two-run home run in her first at-bat. Kasey Stanfield's two-run double and Erin Stanfield helped New Hope creep to 15-12. But the Lady Trojans plated just one more run thanks to a sacrifice fly. Second baseman Peebles caught a line drive for the second out and third baseman Madalyn McMahon fielded a groundball behind third base and then moved forward to tag the runner from second base who broke shortly after contact. The out triggered a celebration that was sure to last all the way home.
"We had some major brain farts. I don't know how else to describe it," Beard said. "We just had some major mental breakdowns that are not normally us. It wasn't just young girls, it was older girls. I felt like we got down on ourselves a little bit in that third game, and we shouldn't have. I am not going to take anything away from them. Trae is a great coach. He has taken a team and turned it completely around in one year. He has got my vote. He has done a great job with them. I can take anything away from them. Do I feel like we're better? Yeah. We can't make that many mistakes and expect to be successful."
Neshoba Central hit four home runs in the decisive game, all to right field or right-center field. Katlyn Duke, Jesse Hennington, Ali Pike, and Meshay Jimmie hit home runs to help the Lady Rockets, who swept New Hope in the regular season, build a 12-2 lead.
Duke was 5-for-5 to lead the 19-hit attack in game three. The left-center fielder said Neshoba Central has worked all season on hitting the ball behind runners at every field. It just worked out that the strategy paid off in bigger dividends Tuesday night.
"We just wanted to hit basehits, and if it goes, it goes," Duke said.
"We were ready for game three. We were pumped we knew it was do or die, and we were going to do."
Embry, who left Eupora High to take the job as head coach at Neshoba Central, arrived in Philadelphia focused on getting the Lady Rockets to hit the ball to the right side of the field.
"If you hit behind runners in slow-pitch softball you score runs," Embry said. "They bought into it."
Neshoba Central hit the ball behind -- and above -- its baserunners to the tune of seven home runs on the evening. Many of the Lady Rockets hitters revealed the strategy as they shifted their feet to position their bodies toward right field to make it easier for them to keep rallies going.
"This is 195 feet (to right field). Our field is 225 or 235 (feet)," Embry said. "The air is thin. I couldn't tell you how many home runs we hit."
The Lady Trojans, who lost twice to the Lady Rockets in the regular season, won game one 12-11 in eight innings thanks to a single by Kasey Stanfield that scored Holifield, who was walked. Holifield hit two home runs in the first game and was walked three times.
New Hope built a 12-3 lead in game two thanks to a grand slam by Holifield in a five-run fifth. Holifield was intentionally walked her first three plate appearances in the game.
Embry said he wasn't going to let Holifield beat him in game three. He made the same decision about Sanders after she hit a home run in her first at-bat.
"This game is a game of momentum," Embry said. "The home run you get more momentum from that. They did get a hit, but it is just a chance you take."
Said Beard of the decision to walk Holifield and Sanders, "I would have done the same thing, and twice on Sunday."
But Neshoba Central rallied for nine runs on six hits in the bottom half of the inning. Kayla Robertson had a three-run double to help the Lady Rockets tie the score. Peebles' home run in the sixth provided the winning margin.
Pike, Peebles, and Miranda Crenshaw hit home runs in the first two games. Pike's and Peebles' home runs were to right field.
"We could have laid down in the second game," Embry said. "We were one play away (from winning) the first game. It just didn't happen. I had two people thrown out in that game. They never laid down and kept believing. That is a testament to the kids. They have worked hard and deserve everything they are getting."
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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