May 9, 2014 11:15:53 AM
Mackenzie Harvey understands what it is like to be called a "baby."
The term is one New Hope High School softball coach Tabitha Beard uses to describe the younger players who have come up through the slow- and fast-pitch programs and have grown into young ladies under her watch. It is a special word because Beard once was one of those "babies" for longtime New Hope softball coach Cary Shepherd. These days, Beard is the veteran coach who has developed a roster full of players and helped send them on to the next level. This season also is the first year her daughter, Brittni, is seeing significant playing time.
So when Harvey, a sophomore, is asked what it is like to be one of the babies, she said she feels more like a grizzled veteran on this season's team. After 28 games, freshman Kelsey Gerhart and classmate Lanora Abrams and eighth-graders Alex Melton, Beard, Kerrington Jones, and Megan James probably feel the same way. After all, they have played roles in helping New Hope (20-7-1) advance to the Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 5A North State title series to face defending state champion Neshoba Central. Game 1 of the best-of-three series is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. today at Lady Trojan Field.
"I feel like I have a big responsibility," Gerhart said. "I don't feel as much of a baby anymore, but I know I am younger and I still have to do my part."
The seven underclassmen are part of the next group of New Hope players who will be charged with continuing the program's tradition. Like Kristin Harvey, Mackenzie's sister, who is an assistant coach on the team this season, Deshuni Sanders, Lauren Holifield, Haley Tutor, and Kasey Stanfield to name a few who have come before them, the younger players have grown up playing the sport. Many of the underclassmen, though, have come up playing more fast-pitch softball than previous groups, but Gerhart said that won't change the expectations or what it means to be part of the New Hope program.
"It is kind of scary because after D.J. and all of the older girls are gone it is just us," Gerhart said. "There won't be any seniors next year."
Beard said the fact she will lose a class with standouts like D.J. Sanders, Kaitlin Bradley, R.J. James, Taylor Blevins, and Brooke Braddock will be tough. But she feels the next generation is on the right path and the players are doing the things they need to do to follow in the steps of the players before them.
"The biggest things we have always prided ourselves on are fundamentals and defense," Beard said. "I feel they have picked those things up. There hasn't had to be as much on the correction end of it as in the past because I think they kind of grew up, especially with Mackenzie and those girls who watched older sisters play under me. I still feed off what coach Shepherd did. It is one of those things where we know we have to be fundamentally sound."
The thought of replacing longtime starters is an equally daunting prospect for Harvey, who has played the biggest role of all of the underclassmen. She has overcome injuries to play key role as a pitcher and as a catcher. She said she learned from her sister, who she used to pitch for when she was still playing at New Hope High. Harvey is one of the team leaders in hitting (.367 average). She understands her sister might be hard on her right now, but she believes she is only trying to help her realize her potential so she has a chance to add to her championship ring collection.
Harvey also sees a lot of potential in the group of younger players. She feels the team hasn't reached that potential yet, and hopes it can raise its game this weekend against an opponent that has been one of its toughest rivals the past few years. Regardless of the outcome of this series, Harvey feels the Lady Trojans had it in them all along to advance to the North State title series and will be able to keep the program's tradition going for years to come.
"I know with all of the little girls -- the babies -- stepping up, it is great that they are showing heart and here coming out here and working hard," Beard said.
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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