January 22, 2014 11:06:54 PM
Wednesday was a day of celebration at New Hope High School.
Even though there was little surprise in the school apparel and hats that were put on the signing table, friends, family, and community came together to celebrate the announcement that Taylor Blevins, Kaitlin Bradley, and D.J. Sanders would continue their softball careers in college.
For Sanders and Bradley, who already had signed with the University of Louisiana at Lafayette Itawamba Community College, respectively, the afternoon was an opportunity to share a special day with friends, teammates, and family members. Blevins shared in that experience as she made it official by signing a scholarship to play softball at Meridian C.C.
The event was the latest in a long line of signing ceremonies New Hope High softball coach Tabitha Beard has been a part of ever since she took over the school's slow- and fast-pitch programs. Wednesday's event had a different wrinkle in that Bradley and Sanders were members of the first teams Beard coached after she replaced longtime coach Cary Shepherd. Sanders' signing with ULL, a perennial power that is ranked No. 13 in this season's preseason poll, makes her the first player from New Hope to sign a softball scholarship with a Division I school.
"This group of girls in general, D.J. and Kaitlin Bradley, they were my first group of seventh-graders all the way through," Beard said. "When you look at the impact they have had on the program as a whole, neither D.J. nor Kaitlin are not the Lauren (Holifield) or the Kasey (Stanfield) who are going to talk and be that kind of leader. They are the girls that when it came to it they led by example.
"Taylor came in and it was a perfect fit and just carried it on through."
All three girls admitted to being nervous about the festivities. Sanders isn't fazed -- at least not yet -- about the fact that she is the school's first Division I softball signee. She, Blevins, and Bradley are members of the New Hope High girls basketball team, which has big matchups against West Point on Friday and Brandon on Saturday at Ackerman. That and a fast-pitch season to go are two reasons Sanders said it is still sinking in that her decision to be a Ragin' Cajun made history.
"It was great to have everybody that has helped me get to where I am today to be a part of it," Sanders said. "It has been a long time coming. It has not been easy, but it would not have been such an accomplishment if it was easy trying to get here. It is nice that it finally paid off, and I am happy I got to share it with my teammates."
In addition to returning to New Hope to watch the next generation of Lady Trojans, Sanders is looking forward to watching her current teammates in college. She better check her schedule because her best bet likely will be when ICC and MCC play in the regular season.
That's an exciting thought for Bradley, who has helped attract the attention of college coaches by playing with the Madison Motion travel team. She said Wednesday she would like to get a chance to play basketball at ICC, but that is something she will determine when she sees how well she juggles all of her responsibilities.
"It has always been a dream of mine to play college ball, and I am finally there," Bradley said. "I just kept working and praying about it and then (the offer) finally came. I didn't let (not getting an offer earlier in the process) stop me."
While Sanders is looking forward to playing shortstop in college, Bradley said she could play a variety of positions but that she imagines third base is where she will get her first look.
Blevins likely will get an opportunity to play in the outfield. The left-handed hitter is a natural for the fast-pitch game because she can slap and use her speed in the short game to put defenses on their heels. Initially, though, she was "skeptical" she would be a chance. She said she hoped to attend another junior college in the state of Mississippi but that she kept working hard to find a fit.
"It has been one of my passions to play softball in college," said Blevins, who thanked God for blessing her with her skills and her older brother, Tyler James, for being her coach and for pushing her to get better. "I love it. I love the game, and I love being in the game. It is just great."
Beard said all three players left their marks on the field, in the classroom, and throughout the school. She said it was a testament to the girls and their families that so many people crowded into the school's library to offer congratulations or to take pictures with the soon-to-be college players.
Beard said she has thought about this day for years. It really hit her last year that she wouldn't have Blevins, Bradley, and Sanders much longer.
"It is so funny to think back to Kaitlin and that little girl that she was," Beard said. "She was so timid and shy and didn't say anything. She just walked in and had a huge smile. When she smiled, everybody knew she was there. That is one of the biggest things I will miss.
"Just how much she has matured and grown, all of them, really, it is crazy to think these were those babies when I first walked in. Kaitlin has come more out of her shell than any of the three.
"D.J. has always had that bubbly personality that she would talk to you and you knew she was there. D.J. doesn't know a stranger, and if you have ever met her mom you know why. They are very friendly, and D.J. will talk to anybody. She will talk to a tree and make it talk back.
"Taylor, when she came, I wasn't too sure about that one. She was a little sassy at times, and sometimes when you have a sassy coach and a sassy player that doesn't always go well. We still butt head at times, but that is her personality. I am so proud. When you think about a year without them, it is hard."
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.