January 4, 2014 9:40:58 PM
Softball has been a part of D.J. Sanders' life ever since she can remember.
Ask the New Hope High School senior what she recalls about her early days with the sport and she talks about attending travel ball tournament and playing catch in the outfield with her father, Donnie, while her sister, DeShuni, played.
Donnie Sanders remembers those days, too. He recalls coming home when D.J. was 5 or 6 years old and her waiting on him with glove in hand to play catch.
Years have past since those first experiences with the sport, but Sanders' love for it has remained. In fact, that passion to be the best player she can be has motivated Sanders to spend hours on her own and with teammates and coaches to hone her skills.
Late last year, Sanders' hard work was realized when she signed a National Letter of Intent to play softball at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, one of the nation's premier programs.
On a smaller scale, Sanders' maturation from little sister to one of the state's best players came together on the field. In her final slow-pitch season with the New Hope Lady Trojans, Sanders earned one of the biggest compliments when opposing coaches opted to intentionally walk her instead of giving her the chance to get on base or to hit a home run. Even though eventual state champion Neshoba Central didn't pitch to Sanders in its North State playoff victory against New Hope, Sanders' impact on the game was undeniable. Whether it was flexing her muscles with home runs or playing defense in the field, Sanders made her mark as the area's top player.
For her accomplishments, Sanders is The Dispatch's All-Area Slow-Pitch Softball Player of the Year.
"It has gone by kind of quick, but this is what I have been working for, so it is like it is finally here rather than it is almost over type of thing," Sanders said. "I am excited, but I am kind of sad that it is almost over."
When her softball career began, though, Sanders didn't know where the sport would take her. To her, the family trips for DeShuni's softball tournaments were an opportunity for her to play catch with her father. Surrounded by so many who enjoyed it, Sanders found something she enjoyed and wanted to do.
"When I was that young and going to her tournaments, I wasn't watching her playing," Sanders said. "I would make my dad throw with me and catch me while she was playing, so I don't even know how he got to watch her play because I was playing while she was playing. I was running around and doing all different kind of stuff, so it was like a playground to me. It was always fun and it was never a burden to be around it because I liked it and it made softball a positive thing for me. When I finally got to play, I still had the positive mind-set of it being softball."
Softball has remained a positive in Sanders' life thanks to the involvement of numerous teammates and coaches. Donnie Sanders has played an integral role in the evolution of D.J.'s skills. After coaching DeShuni on the Columbus-Lowndes Recreation Authority park league teams and on travel ball squads, Donnie transitioned to D.J. and found another daughter who loved being active. He said D.J. 's strength at an early age came from her willingness to be outside. He said D.J. used to ride her bicycle when he used to go run at Lake Lowndes State Park.
Softball became a natural outlet for D.J. to showcase her burgeoning athletic ability. Donnie Sanders remembers D.J. being as young as 5 or 6 years old when he sensed she could be pretty good at softball. It didn't take long for D.J. to get involved with travel ball and for her to gravitate to playing on teams with players older than her.
As young as she was, D.J. remembers things were getting serious. She also recalls not understanding why her father was being so tough on her and how that affected her love for the game. But she said she realized when she started pitching -- anywhere from 8 to 10 years old -- that softball wasn't solely for fun and that she was trying to accomplish something playing it. She grew to appreciate her father was working with her to help her improve, and she credits him and her mother, Renee, for instilling in her a work ethic that has helped her realize an opportunity to play softball in college.
"It still hasn't quite hit me yet because I am still focusing on high school stuff," Sanders said. "I am still playing basketball and I still have a fast-pitch season left, but when school ends and I don't have anything else to look forward to high school wise I am about to go to college is when I will hit me that this is real."
Sanders also is one of the state's top girls basketball players. When she is done with that season, she will transition to pitcher/shortstop for her final season with the fast-pitch team and the New Hope High softball program. Sanders said it always has been her dream to earn a scholarship to play softball in college. She admits thinking about taking the next step pits pressure on her because she doesn't want to let anyone down.
But Donnie Sanders said D.J.'s chances to play on older travel ball teams helped her learn how to compete and how to push herself to play up to the ability of the players around her.
"The maturity from having to feel like she belonged there has probably pushed her to continue to get better. She has always played travel ball with girls two years older since she was 12. That drive and just wanting to get better has helped her get better."
On weekends when D.J. didn't do well, Donnie said his daughter would work the entire week to get better. He feels D.J.'s competitiveness also comes in part from being in an athletic family. Donnie ran track and played football at Mississippi College in Clinton, while Renee competed in track and field at Jackson State.
"She was probably in the eighth grade when she started to make her own name and when she really wasn't referred to as DeShuni's little sister," Donnie Sanders said. "By that time she was probably a little bigger anyway."
As much progress as she has made, D.J. isn't going to get complacent. She feels fortunate to have achieved everything she has and to have been recognized for all of her accomplishments, but she knows those things won't matter in college and that she will have to earn her spot. That doesn't figure to be a problem, though, because Sanders has shown a knack for putting in the time to produce the results. She believes she could have found a school where she could have played basketball and done well. She opted for softball because she feels she will work harder at a sport she has grown up with and has so many great memories. All of the hours at her sister's softball tournaments helped create that feeling.
"I just feel like softball is positive all of the time," Sanders said. "I know sometimes we lose and it gets tough, but I feel positive about softball all of the time."
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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