September 20, 2013 11:57:44 AM
The contents of this article have been modified since its original posting.
In the middle of the sixth inning, a fan jokingly offered a group of New Hope softball players a thousand dollars if any of them hit a home run off the water tower beyond the center field wall.
Minutes later, senior D.J. Sanders came close.
Sanders hit a massive home run to dead center field in the sixth inning, breaking a tie and helping kick-start a three-run sixth inning as New Hope beat Grenada 6-3 in the Region 2-5A/6A opener for both teams Tuesday night at Lady Trojan Field.
"I think Coach (Tabitha) Beard would like for us to have won this game a little earlier, but we will take the end result," Sanders said.
New Hope has had atypical struggles through the first month of the season. While those struggles have not found they way to the win-loss column -- New Hope is now 8-1 -- it has been enough to up the stress level for Beard.
"This team is real young and we play like we are real young," Beard said. "We are back and forth with the lineup due to so many injuries. We started with 25 girls. Two quit, so we were down to 23. Right now, only 16 can play due to injuries. Two of our starters from the beginning of the year are now injured. We have some competition going on for some positions. Between injuries and weather not allowing us to play some games, we have had a struggle.
"We are asking for young girls to step up, but it has been hard to find a rhythm. Tonight, some of them did. That will be big as we go forward."
Sanders is one of five seniors on this year's team. Now an elder statesman on the team, she understands the New Hope way of doing things. She also understands this year's team is very much a work in progress.
"We have a lot of new faces and that shows up a lot," Sanders said. "For me, it is fun because I am a senior. You never know what to expect from one day to the next. The big thing is getting better. Coach Beard keeps preaching defense. That is where we have to pick it up. Everybody wants to hit. That is the easy part. Now, we are working on defense and those extra things to become better."
In the sixth inning, New Hope broke through by bunching together four straight hits. After the home run, Mackenzie Harvey, Kelsey Gerhart and Chelsey Ray followed with consecutive hard-hit singles to the outfield. A ground ball out brought one run home, while a follow-up RBI-single by Alex Melton scored the game's final run.
"We have more than five or six players capable of hitting the ball," New Hope sophomore pitcher Hope Williams said. "We just have to work on our consistency. We have to have more of those types of innings. I think we are getting there. Coach Beard stays on about us working hard. We have made a lot of progress."
New Hope built a 1-0 first-inning lead Tuesday night on the first of three hits by Harvey, who is also a sophomore.
Grenada plated the game-tying run in the second inning.
An RBI-triple by Kaitlin Bradley and RBI-single by Harvey ran the New Hope lead out to 3-1 in third inning. Shaky defensive play then took place allowing Grenada to tie things back up in the top half of the fourth inning.
"We have been having that one bad inning where we don't make the plays," Beard said.
Things stayed tight until the final five of New Hope's 11 hits put the contest away in the home half of the sixth inning.
Williams allowed 10 hits but retired the side in order in the seventh inning.
"I was nervous the first couple of innings because of my arm," Williams said. "D.J., Chelsey and Mackenzie always have my back. They always talk me through it."
The learning curve is now accelerating for New Hope. The Lady Trojans will play their six region games over the next three weeks, including a game Thursday at Columbus. On this night, a 1-0 start in region play was satisfaction enough.
"A lot of girls who didn't get a lot of time last year have been stepping up this year," Sanders said. "Some of them have even been starting. The important thing is that when the game got tough, we didn't stop. We are tying to find the right chemistry."
Follow Scott Walters on Twitter @dispatchscott.
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter