October 9, 2013 11:09:55 PM
Tonight will be an emotional night at Lady Trojan Field.
The New Hope High School slow-pitch softball program will celebrate the final regular-season home game of another group of seniors tonight following a 6:30 game against Caledonia.
But while the game will be special for seniors Taylor Blevins, Kaitlin Bradley, R.J. James, D.J. Sanders, and Kaydi Woolbright, they know there will be more games to play at home. Those games will determine if this year's group of seniors can go out like champions like so many other groups before them.
On Tuesday, New Hope (17-2), the Region 2 champion, will play host to Saltillo, the Region 1 runner up, in a best-of-three Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 5A/6A first-round state tournament series.
If it wins, New Hope will play host to the winner of the Neshoba Central-Warren Central winner. Last year, Neshoba Central defeated New Hope en route to winning the Class 5A state title. That series loss prevented New Hope from having a chance to win its 15th state crown, and sixth in a row.
Neshoba Central also eliminated New Hope in the Class 5A fast-pitch state tournament en route to winning that championship.
New Hope coach Tabitha Beard said this season has been a roller coaster ride filled with injuries, lineup changes, position changes, and plenty of ups and downs. Despite the team's youth and overall lack of experience, Beard was pleased with its performance Saturday in victories against East Webster and Eupora. The team made defensive mistakes that gnawed at Beard, but she said the victories could be a starting point for the team as it prepares for its postseason run.
"It all kind of came back together and we played really, really well," Beard said. "I was real proud of (the younger girls) for stepping up around the (older) girls like D.J., who they are walking pretty consistently now. For us to be able to score that many runs around her is really good because it is something we really struggled with at the beginning."
Beard feels the younger players have consistently improved their level of play. She said nagging injuries have kept some players out of the lineup as she has moved players around to find the best lineup. After having seniors like Kasey and Erin Stanfield, Ashley Reed and Lauren Holifield last season, Beard admits there has been plenty of trial and error working with a younger squad. She hopes the most recent games will be a jumping off point for bigger and better things.
"It is definitely something great to build on," Beard said. "We hit the ball better than we have all year, and it was one through 10 consistently through the lineup. We had some defensive mistakes, and that is my biggest pet peeve in the world. I am big on defense. That is what we have tried to work on the past few days, getting those defensive bugs out. I feel if we get the defensive bugs out and we hit the way we hit this weekend we have a great shot at taking it that far."
Bradley and Sanders hope that is the case, too. They will have at least two more senior days (basketball, fast-pitch softball), so there will be a few more celebrations and hugs to go around to teammates and coaches and family members. Whether it comes in a yell from Sanders or stern voice from Bradley, they will do their part to make sure all of the Lady Trojans have more than one or two more series left in their slow-pitch seasons.
"Besides that one defensive inning, I thought that was the best we have played all year," Sanders said. "It kind of shows how hard we have been working and the little girls are getting better. You can see them contributing to defense and to runs being scored. It is good to see it all coming together."
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Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.