April 17, 2013 1:48:35 AM
SCOOBA -- East Mississippi Community College first-year softball coach Kyndall White admits it took a little while for her team to find its stride.
The Lady Lions are there now.
EMCC battles Northeast Mississippi Community College today in a Mississippi Association of Community and Junior Colleges North Division doubleheader in Booneville. With eight division games remaining, the Lady Lions hold a one-game lead in the division standings.
"The second half of the season, we have really turned it on, especially in conference play," said White, a four-year standout at Auburn University who took over the EMCC program last fall. "We have come a long way as a team. We only have three sophomores that play in the field, so everybody knows that we are a young team. We have really improved out hitting. That is where we are winning games."
EMCC has won five straight games overall and six of its past seven. Abby Roberts leads the way with a .432 batting average. The freshman catcher from Meridian leads the team with 41 base hits and is second in doubles with eight. Amber Spann, Haley Tutor, Taylor Hackney, Jade Albritton, Meri Morgan Fortune, Charly Boswell and Corey Dawkins are all regulars, hitting .300 or better.
"Our freshman class has really taken the role from a leadership standpoint," White said. "Behind the plate, Abby Roberts has been great for us all year. In the beginning, we were trying to find our identity as a team. Once we were able to establish that, the leadership roles have really emerged in the second half of the season."
In the circle, EMCC only has one sophomore pitcher. Five different players have logged as many as 20 innings. Amelia LaVergne leads the way with a 6-5 record and 2.10 earned run average in 60 innings of work.
"Our freshman pitchers have stepped up tremendously," White said. "We have been blessed with Abby, because she has grown and matured back there and done a great job for us."
White admits some of the early season learning was only natural with a new coaching staff being put in place.
"It took a while for the girls to get used to us," said White, who is assisted by Taryn Gray. "They were not used to our style. We are very passionate about what we are doing. We practice hard every day. From the class room to the weight room to the field, we go hard. Once they got a feel for the type of passion we are bringing to the game, how much effort we were putting into the girls to get their full potential, that is when things started turning around."
EMCC enters today's critical twinbill at 19-15 overall and 12-4 in division play. Northeast is 19-10-1 and 11-5. Itawamba is also on the doorstep at 20-10-1 and 11-5. The top five spots in the division are only separated by two games in the win column.
"What has really surprised me is the pitching around the state," White said. "The elimination of the recruiting districts has really leveled the playing fields. The South Division has held the upper hand for years. Now, the gap is closing, because every team in the state has some legitimate pitching."
While the Lions also have had their say in the circle, continued strong offensive play could be the key to another division title. For EMCC, that offensive punch starts with the 1-2 combination of former New Hope star Tutor at leadoff and former Pickens Academy star Dawkins in the No. 2 spot in the lineup.
"They make a great combination at the top of the lineup," White said. "Haley is a sophomore outfielder. She is a veteran. She has been a huge part of our team from the leadoff spot. You want a girl who gets on base from there and Haley is going to do that. She is going to get base hits, some line shots, some gap shots. She has not homered this year, but we don't need that from the leadoff position. She has a great arm in the outfield and can cover a lot of groud."
Meanwhile, Dawkins is a freshman. She signed initially as a catcher and moved to shortstop, thanks in part to the emergence of Roberts.
"Corey has learned a new position and is doing a great job with it," White said. "Most games, she is the our designed player. She is a slapper and puts the ball in play. Out of the No. 2 hole, she does so many things. When Haley gets on, (Dawkins) is going to move her over with base hit or a slap. She just has so many great aspects of her offensive game. She is making strides in the field every day as well."
Making strides is what EMCC has been doing since the opening day of the season. A few more strides could mean a championship.
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter