October 30, 2013 10:07:32 AM
For the past 15 years or so, the future of slow-pitch softball as a Mississippi High School Activities Association sanctioned sport has been debated.
When the MHSAA first sanctioned volleyball, it was assumed it would become the sport of choice for female athletes in the fall. Today, roughly one-third of the state's schools are playing volleyball. Even though a number of schools have phased out slow-pitch softball, it remains healthy around the state.
Many senior college coaches don't understand the emphasis on slow-pitch softball around the state. Many feel it would be better for serious players to play fast-pitch softball year-round. While the MHSAA has a sanctioned fast-pitch season in the spring, that would mean players would play other spots in the fall or play on a travel-ball team.
However, with crowds of more than 4,000 at Freedom Ridge Park on Saturday for the five MHSAA slow-pitch softball state championship series, it is a safe bet the sport isn't going anywhere soon.
One school where slow-pitch softball is very much alive and well is Hamilton.
Hamilton defeated Stringer twice Saturday to win the Class 1A state championship. In 2012, Hamilton won the Class 2A state championship. Some members of the Hamilton senior class played on three state championship teams. The school also won the 2009 title. Overall, Hamilton has won seven slow-pitch softball championships.
For the Lady Lions, the state championship isn't a goal -- it is an expectation.
"They are brought up around here expecting to win state championships," Hamilton coach Bryan Loague said. "Anything else is a major disappointment in this community. It is a lot of pressure, but we live with it instead of fearing it. I think it is that type of expectation that helps us when we need the most motivation."
Coach Lewis Earnest built a dynasty at Hamilton. Loague has left his mark and helped maintain the dynasty.
However, there were doubts the Lady Lions could make it this far. Hamilton finished 25-7, but four of those losses came late in the season. Privately, Loague worried if his team had the intestinal fortitude to pull it together for a championship run.
"We had to get things together because we just weren't playing well," Hamilton senior Cheyenne Logan said. "There was no finger-pointing. We just talked about things. We just knew we were a lot better team than we had been showing."
Hamilton went to work to get back on track. Loague told the story of junior Addie Thompson coming to the field on her own for two hours to hit off a tee before the North State championship series against Smithville. Whether Thompson noticed something in her swing or just wanted to build confidence, the extra practice paid off. She had six hits as Hamilton beat Smithville twice to reach the state championship.
In the state championship series, Hamilton made the trip all about business. Loague said the team had an 11 p.m. curfew Friday night. Players were asked to turn cell phones into coaches by 10:45 p.m. Loague said more than half the players had their phones in by 10 p.m.
On Saturday morning, breakfast was scheduled for three hours before the 10:30 a.m. start of the championship series. No wakeup calls were needed, as two of the six rooms occupied by players were cleared out and at breakfast before coaches could make their rounds.
"It's a different mind-set around here," Loague said. "Playing in the big games is what this softball program is all about. You always think you can get it together and make a run. However, we had some adversity throughout the season, so you always have your doubts. The playoffs were a totally different story. It was a two-week stretch where we played as well we could possibly play."
Hamilton did it with offense. The Lady Lions hit about 35 home runs this season. Hamilton did it with defense. The Lady Lions put together a four-player outfield Loague called "the best in North Mississippi." Without question, strong outfield play saved the Lady Lions multiple runs against Smithville and Stringer.
Hamilton did it with senior leadership. Alison Atkins, Taylor Hyland, Raimi Bryan, Jordyn Jackson, and Logan kept the team afloat when it looked like this championship run might not be possible.
When the season began, only two position starters were lost off the 2012 state championship team. While the program had the expectation for another title, it is a safe bet other Class 1A coaches felt the same way.
The team had players who had played big games at Freedom Ridge Park. Hamilton won all eight games it played in the postseason. The Lady Lions had one extra-inning game and another where it won on a late walk-off by Thompson. The other six games were never in doubt.
When Hamilton takes the field, the other team feels slightly intimidated. And as long as slow-pitch softball continues to be played in the state, it is a safe bet Hamilton will continue to play it very well.
Scott Walters is a sports reporter for the Commercial Dispatch. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @dispatchscott.
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