May 23, 2013 3:17:28 PM
The contents of this article have been modified since its original posting.
It sounds easier than you would think. After all, when you're playing in front of a packed stadium and you have hit at the top of the lineup for most of your career and you expect to do well and you are raring to go in your first full season with the varsity, things can easily get jumbled in a hurry.
That's kind of how Parker Earhart felt earlier this season. As much as he tried to ease his mind and do what came naturally for years, nothing seemed to click. He tweaked his batting stance, he took extra cuts before and after practice, and he accepted the encouragement from coaches and teammates who reassured him everything would fall into place.
Earhart is showing perseverance pays off.
"Later in the season you just have to let it go," Earhart said. "You have to go up there and forget about everything, especially starting off in the playoffs. It doesn't matter what you have done in the whole season, you just have to start from the playoffs and act like it is a new season."
The junior second baseman has been a steady presence in the field all season, but his ability to find his comfort zone late in the season has given the New Hope High School baseball team an added lift in its postseason run. Earhart and the Trojans (23-8) will look to continue that ride at 7 tonight when they take on Hernando in game one of the Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 5A North State title series. Game two of the best-of-three series will be at 7 p.m. Friday in Columbus. If needed, game three will be at 7 p.m. in Hernando.
Last season, Hernando eliminated New Hope in three games to advance to the Class 5A State title series, where it lost to Pascagoula.
This season, Earhart hopes to help push the Trojans to the next step. He showed in the last series he is ready to contribute with a diving catch in the outfield grass in the fifth inning of a 7-4 victory against Ridgeland. Earhart also had a three-run double in the bottom half of the inning that gave New Hope a 7-1 lead. The hit was just the latest one that has helped Earhart regain the confidence he can play on the big stage.
"At the beginning of the season, I was nervous, but I just had to get through it," Earhart said. "Even though I didn't do as good as could have done, I just let it go and moved on from it. You go up there, erase your memory, and relax, relax. You try not to care if this or that happens and try to relax and then move on to the next thing."
New Hope coach Lee Boyd said Earhart has battled back after a slow start to the season and is just one of many in a lineup who is contributing. Early in the season, though, Boyd wasn't sure what to do with Earhart. He said he started him in the No. 2 spot in the lineup looking for a spark to get the offense going. Earhart's struggles forced him to juggle the lineup, but it wasn't until late in the season that he saw Earhart find his rhythm mentally and physically.
"His average is around .200, but he is a much better hitter than that," Boyd said. "To get a hit like that (against Ridgeland) in a situation like that in front of probably the biggest crowd we have had all year has to make him feel a part of the team and that I have contributed.
"He has done his job defensively all year. At the plate, he has worked and continued to work. He is up here getting some extra cuts with Jake Smith and some of our former graduated seniors all of the time. That is what New Hope baseball is all about. You can tell the true character of a person when things aren't going well how they react to those things. He could have easily thrown it into the tank and said, 'I am not going to worry about it anymore. I am not going to hit.' But he didn't do that, and, obviously, it helped us in a big way Monday."
Boyd said the coaches have repeatedly told Earhart to relax his body and his hands when he is in the batter's box. He said getting a couple of hits has helped Earhart ease up and to realize his potential. Earhart flashed that potential Monday in the top of the fifth by making a defensive play Boyd still doesn't know how he made it. Earhart said he and shortstop Will Golsan converged on the ball after they saw center fielder Taylor Stafford couldn't find the ball. Golsan and Earhart lost it when it went over the top of the lights, but he said he went to area and was fortunate that he saw the ball at the last minute and was able to make a play.
"I am positive I caught the ball," Earhart said. "It is just one of those things that you stick your glove out at the last second and you catch it. I don't know what you call it? Luck?"
Earhart is one of several players who have made the most of bigger opportunities this season. Boyd praised the development of J.C. Redden, Payton Lane, and Austin Oswalt and said their maturation has bolstered a lineup he feels can produce from top to bottom. He said players like Wells Davis (first base) and Rooke Coleman (outfield) also have taken on roles that best fit the needs of the team.
"We say after every season who is going to be our surprise guy next season," Boyd said. "We feel every year we have a couple of guys who really want to play and don't want to see it from here on the bench and they want to contribute, just like Parker. A lot of guys have put in extra work. I brag on J.C. He worked really hard in the offseason after throwing very few junior varsity innings. He has really come out of nowhere and has really contributed this year. You can look at somebody like Oswalt, a senior, who has never got a chance to play as a starter, and, to be honest, wasn't given the opportunity in the first part of the year. We gave him a shot and he hitting the ball well and then he got sick and lost 25 pounds. He has come back and continued to work.
"Then you look at somebody like Payton Lane. He has grown, and I didn't have him in the lineup to start the season. But he got a couple of at-bats early and got some hits in some pinch-hit situations. The next thing you know he is in the lineup."
Now that he has found his comfort zone, Earhart is relishing his chance to be in the lineup. He said he isn't as tense and understands how to forget an at-bat and not to carry it into the field or back to the batter's box the next time up.
"I kind of grew up at the plate," Earhart said. "Now that you get experience, because this is the first year I have played varsity, the experience level is back to where it has been, and so is the comfort level."
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.