April 3, 2014 9:41:53 AM
Ashley Langford and Cara Hopper already knew what it was like to play for a tradition-rich softball program.
As standout performers for veteran coach Robin Elmore at Caledonia High School, Langford and Hopper routinely helped the Lady Confederates win region championships and make deep postseason runs.
The duo is together again, trying to continue its winning ways at Itawamba Community College.
"The season has been exciting," Hopper said. "I knew the last two seasons that the team had been real good. We are trying to our best to win state and make a run at nationals. We have come a long way since the start of the season. Everybody works well together and is having a good time."
No. 15 ICC is 21-10 and 13-3 in Mississippi Association of Junior and Community Colleges North Division play. On Wednesday, ICC defeated Northwest Mississippi C.C. 5-2 and 10-1 in Senatobia. It went to Senatobia with a one game lead in the division and expanded that cushion by two games. The top four teams in each division advance to the MACJC playoffs. In the latest National Junior College Athletic Association Division II rankings, ICC earned its the highest national ranking in program history.
"We are blessed to be ranked where are in the polls," ICC third-year coach Andy Kirk said. "The ranking is a reflection of all of the hard work and sacrifice that has gone into building this program. We have three (MACJC) teams ranked and a couple of others who could make a case. That is a testament to how strong our league is this season."
Anyone familiar with Kirk's outstanding high school coaching track record shouldn't be surprised at ICC's success. Still, it was a vision for success Langford recognized when she signed with the school two years ago.
"I was really impressed by the team aspect of the program," Langford said. "You could tell everybody really got along. When it comes time to play the game, we are very serious and focused. When we are away from the field, we are one big family.
"Coach Kirk instills a lot of confidence in us and it shows in how we play."
Kirk was named the ICC softball coach prior to the 2012 season. Success quickly followed, as ICC won a school-record 34 games and the second North Division championship in program history.
Last season, ICC finished 31-15 and advanced to a sixth-straight NJCAA Region XXIII tournament and repeated as North Division champions. That squad also had the first National Fastpitch Coaches Association All-Region selection and finished the season ranked 16th in the nation.
"As a freshman, you just want to step in and contribute," Hopper said. "It is hard to do that sometimes when you are on a really good team. However, I knew I would get my opportunities this year and have just tried to make the most of them."
Mainly performing as a pitcher or designed player, Hopper entered Wednesday's doubleheader having appeared in all 29 games. Her .333 average includes 26 hits in 78 at-bats, with six doubles, a triple, and three home runs.
Langford, who plays catcher or first base, is hitting .315, with 23 hits, seven doubles, and a team-best six home runs. She is tied for the team lead with 34 RBIs.
While ICC appears to have the division race on cruise control with eight North Division games left and a three-game division lead, thoughts can't help but turn to the postseason.
"We were close last year," Langford said. "As a sophomore, you want to do everything in your power to make sure the team goes as far as humanly possible."
In the circle, Hopper (3-1) has appeared in 15 games. She also has three saves. In 36 1/3 innings, Hopper has allowed seven earned runs and 16 walks. She has 34 strikeouts. Former Sulligent High School standout Montana Hawkins is a sophomore at ICC. She has appeared in 14 games and has a 7-4 record in 50 1/3 innings.
In Scooba, East Mississippi C.C. is fighting for one of the four playoff spots from the MACJC North Division.
Coach Kyndall White's second Lady Lions are 19-15 and 8-6 in MACJC North Division play with 10 division games remaining. EMCC was scheduled to play Wednesday at Coahoma C.C. in Clarksdale, but rain foiled those plans.
EMCC has dropped four games by three runs or less to Northwest Mississippi, including two in extra innings. It split with division leader ICC last month. The teams will play again April 14 in Fulton.
"Consistency is the key word for this team," White said. "We are learning how to have that focus and intensity for an entire doubleheader. With 10 games left, there is plenty of softball in our future and really we control our destiny for the most part. We need a strong finish to get back to the playoffs."
White, a former all-conference performer at Auburn University, won 24 games and finished second in division play a season ago. This season, the Lady Lions have used a lot of new faces to make another run at a division title.
Some of the new faces include former New Hope High standouts Kasey Stanfield and Anna McCrary. Former Pickens Academy standout Corey Dawkins is in her second year at EMCC, while former Pickens Academy standout Whitney Lowe is a freshman.
"We have learned a lot about ourselves this year," Stanfield said. "It is always a growing process when you play at a new school for the first time. The thing is everybody gets along great and we have a real positive attitude. We feel like we just need to do a few of the little things better and we then can really take off."
Stanfield has appeared in all 34 games this season at catcher or third base. She is hitting .323 with 30 base hits, eight doubles, and 19 RBIs. McCrary, an outfielder, has seven RBIs in 20 games. Lowe has five RBIs in 14 games.
"I have learned so much about softball in just a short amount of time here," McCrary said. "Coach White is really committed to make sure every player is the best player they can possibly be."
Dawkins leads the team with a .455 average. In 33 appearances as a utility player, she has 51 hits, two doubles, four triples, and 12 RBIs.
The MACJC playoffs begin April 25.
Follow Scott Walters on Twitter @dispatchscott.
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