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New Hope softball stands one win away from state title series

 

Adam Minichino

 

PHILADELPHIA -- Championship programs respond. 

 

Instead of dwelling on the fact that two errors in the bottom of the fourth inning cost it the lead, the New Hope High School fast-pitch softball team re-focused and went back to work in the top of the fifth. 

 

The answer -- and D.J. Sanders -- proved too much for Neshoba Central to handle. 

 

Sanders scored what proved to be the winning run on a wild pitch and Kaitlin Bradley added an RBI single in the fifth, and Sanders made the most of the runs, throwing a no-hitter in a 5-2 victory Monday night in game one of the Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 5A North State title series. 

 

"They did a great job," New Hope coach Tabitha Beard said. "There were little mistakes and miscues all over the place and we just kind of said, 'We got it.' That is what I have preached and preached and preached. We can't get down on each other and we have to stay up and we have to stay in it. That is exactly what they did." 

 

New Hope (27-1) will try to sweep the best-of-three series at 5 p.m. today in Columbus and earn a trip back to the Class 5A title series. Neshoba Central (27-6) will have to win game two to force a game three, which would be played approximately 30 minutes following game two. 

 

Last season, Wayne County swept New Hope to win the Class 5A championship. 

 

This season, New Hope aims to change the ending with a lineup that features four seniors and four juniors. The veteran leadership and the youth came through in the fifth when the Lady Trojans needed it most. 

 

With one out, Sanders singled to left field. She moved to second on a passed ball and to third on a single by Kasey Stanfield, who turned to the dugout and pumped her fists in an attempt to energize her teammates. A wild pitch by Kayla McKinion with Kaitlin Bradley at the plate allowed Sanders to score the go-ahead run. Bradley then made it 4-2 with a single to center field. 

 

"I told them when we came into the huddle (after the bottom of the fourth) that we don't die," Stanfield said. "We are New Hope and we don't die. We knew what we had to do, and I knew what I had to say to get my team pumped up. I don't yell at them, but I yell to them and I get them pumped up." 

 

New Hope tacked on an insurance run in the seventh. With two outs, Stanfield singled and Bradley followed with a single. The runners moved up on a wild pitch before Kaitlin Oswalt's infield single made it 5-2. 

 

The Lady Trojans took a 1-0 lead in the first when Taylor Blevins struck out but reached base on a ball in the dirt. Sanders' double to right-center field pushed Blevins to third before Stanfield laid a squeeze bunt down the first-base line for the first run. 

 

New Hope made it 2-0 in the third and could have had more. Sanders and Bradley had singles around an out before Oswalt's blooper down the right-field line gave the Lady Trojans their second run. But Bradley was thrown out at third base for the second out. Erin Stanfield followed with a single, but center fielder Katlyn Duke threw out Oswalt at the plate to end the inning. 

 

Sanders retired the first nine batters and ran into trouble only in the fourth and sixth. In the fourth, she walked lead-off hitter Hailey Lunderman. Madalyn McMahon then reached when the Lady Trojans committed the first of two errors in the inning on a dropped throw to first base. Hannah Williams' sacrifice bunt pushed runners to third and second with one out. Sanders made the pitch she needed to cleanup hitter Kayla Robertson and induced a comebacker. She threw to first base for the second out, but the throw home to try to get Lunderman, who broke after Sanders threw to first, got past catcher Kasey Stanfield. Lunderman scored easily on what would have been a close play, and McMahon beat Sanders to the plate to tie the game 

 

In the sixth, Sanders again walked the lead-off hitter. This time, though, she knocked down a comebacker by McMahon, which might have been the hardest hit ball of the night by the Lady Rockets, and recovered to get the second out. She then struck out Williams swinging for her second and final strikeout. The victory helped her to improve to 3-0 against Neshoba Central this season. 

 

"She has just grown up," Beard said. "It is so amazing to think she was the little girl who hit 500 batters when she was 9 years old and she was crying, too. She is so kind-hearted, and she doesn't like to hit kids, either. She has just matured so much. I can't say enough." 

 

Beard admitted she knew Sanders was carrying a no-hitter. She expressed some anxiety about Sanders' ability to cope with the fact she wasn't getting as many called strikes as she would have liked, but Sanders and Stanfield worked together to make sure no one lost focus. 

 

"I really just told her to calm down and that it was pitching practice with just us," Stanfield said. "She pitched really well. ... She knew what she had to do to get (the umpire) to call it (a strike). She went back and came inside and then came back and pitched a strike." 

 

Sanders said she didn't know she had a no-hitter until after the game. She didn't even know she would start game one in the circle until the team started warming up. She figured Holifield would get the start not only because she thought it was her turn, but also because her right shoulder has been bothering her. Sanders shook off the discomfort and kept her focus by smiling and looking to center fielder R.J. James. 

 

"I think I pitched OK," Sanders said. 

 

Sanders also did an understated job of keeping her poise. She said she used to have a bad temper when she played softball in the 10-and-under league. Back then, she used to get very upset when she pitched and didn't get the calls she wanted from the umpire. The self-described "work in progress" has come together this season in what Sanders called her best season keeping her composure. 

 

"I find something funny to laugh at (when a strike isn't called)," Sanders said. "It helps me take my mind off it, or you will see me walk around the circle. My center fielder (James) also helped me. One time I looked back and she was bent down and her glove wasn't on. She was the one who kept me distracted from what was going on in the game because I was worried about her." 

 

Neshoba Central coach Trae Embry, whose team beat New Hope in slow-pitch softball to end the Lady Trojans' title run, expected to face Sanders in game one even though New Hope typically rotates pitchers and tends to go with senior right-hander Lauren Holifield to start series. 

 

"They had good at-bats the whole game, and I thought we had some good at-bats," Embry said. "I know we got no-hit, but we only struck out twice, which is a big improvement from when we faced her the first time. We just have to get some barrels on some balls and see what we can do the next game." 

 

Embry said the key today will be his team's ability to put pressure on New Hope. In the inning Neshoba Central scored, Embry said the Lady Rockets made the Lady Trojans do things a click quicker, which contributed to the errors. Whether it is Sanders or Holifield in the circle, Embry's squad won't have a lot of time, but, at the same time, he and his players know what they're going to face, so he is confident they will be ready. 

 

"It doesn't matter who we face," Embry said. "If one gets in trouble, the other one is coming in. They have two good pitchers, and that helps. 

 

"It starts by getting people on base. If you don't get people on base it doesn't matter what you do. That is where it all starts, finding ways to get on." 

 

For New Hope, it is a matter of finding a way to respond. On a night when Holifield, the team's lead-off hitter and the player with the best batting average, didn't get a hit, New Hope did that by having five players with multiple hits. Bradley (three hits) and Sanders, Kasey Stanfield, Oswalt, and Erin Stanfield each had two hits in the 11-hit attack. 

 

Beard said that was satisfying, just as it was to see the Lady Trojans play with a "One team, One dream" approach. A sign with that message was taped to the wall inside New Hope's dugout Monday night. 

 

"(Coach Embry) had made the statement to me earlier in the year that Holifield and Sanders weren't going to beat him again, and he did that in slow-pitch season, where he walked and walked and walked them," Beard said. "That is what we focused on this week, that no matter what he throws at us we have to be ready. We have to be ready to stand up and come in and get the hits when we need them. They did it. Erin came up in an inning or two, and Kasey did, too."

 

Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.

 

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