May 9, 2014 11:17:12 AM
An injury can't slow a softball brain.
In the case of Taylor Blevins, her brain is itching to tell her legs to go. For the longest time, though, torn ligaments in her left thumb prevented the New Hope High School senior from playing a key role on the school's fast-pitch softball team. After seeing significant minutes in the girls basketball team's run to the Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 5A state semifinals, Blevins' injury forced her to miss most of her final high school fast-pitch season.
But Blevins has returned in the nick of time to join classmates D.J. Sanders, Kaitlin Bradley, R.J. James, and Brooke Braddock in an attempt to help New Hope (20-7-1) earn its first fast-pitch state title in school history. New Hope will try to take the next step at 5:30 p.m. today when it plays host to defending Class 5A state champion Neshoba Central in Game 1 of their best-of three MHSAA Class 5A North State championship series.
Blevins didn't hit or play in the field in New Hope's 4-3 come-from-behind victory against Germantown on Saturday. Called on to pinch run for Alex Melton, who had just reached on a single in the bottom of the seventh inning, Blevins' job was to make something happen with New Hope trailing 3-2. The speedster did just that, avoiding a tag on a ground ball to second base. She then used her quick thinking and her even quicker feet to read a ball in the dirt and steal third base. The two plays helped put her in prime scoring position to tie the game.
"My softball brain was telling me I need to do anything it takes to get to where I need to go and to be safe," Blevins said. "I was just being smart about it. I wasn't trying to rush to be safe. I was being smart. I was playing smart."
Blevins learned from an earlier game when she was erased on a force play on a similar ground ball to the second baseman. This time, though, Blevins said she got a good jump off first base and realized she had to curve a little bit more to avoid the tag. She moved just enough to avoid the tag and get to second safely.
Blevins continued to apply pressure on the defense from second. Even though it wasn't a wild pitch, the ball in the dirt gave Blevins just enough of a window to use her speed.
"I like to challenge people with my speed, but not only that, I like to be smart about it," Blevins said. "I said to myself, 'If she fumbles the ball or it hits the ground, I am gone. I like to be aggressive on the bases to help my team."
It didn't occur to Blevins until later that those two plays epitomized the essence of fast-pitch softball. She said it felt "great" that she could use her ability to the read the game to help her team advance.
New Hope coach Tabitha Beard said she wasn't surprised Blevins was able to help the Lady Trojans manufacture a key run in a pivotal situation.
"One of the things you can't take away from any of them, especially her, is her brain and her knowledge," Beard said. "She has such a great reaction to the ball. That is one of the reasons she is a great outfielder.
"Anyone else on our team that probably would have been a double play. She was smart enough to be passed her when it was there. At first, I was like, 'Oh crap, stop.' That is what you are taught. If you are a coach, you teach your kids if the girl in front of you has the ball, stop. Don't let her tag you. I was like, 'Oh, never mind. It is Taylor. She will be fine.' She hooked around her and got in."
Like Blevins, Braddock knows what it is like for injuries to derail a career. A year ago, a shoulder injury Braddock suffered in practice forced her to miss the slow-pitch season. This season, a finger injury (ligament) nearly took her out of action, but the first baseman, who will graduate early to walk in ceremonies with her brother, Kevin, said she has enjoyed getting a chance to contribute after missing so many games.
"I have been playing softball since I was 5 years old," Braddock said. "I knew when I came to New Hope I wanted to be on the softball team. I have gotten injured basically the whole time I have been here, but I have always worked hard and tried my best because I knew one day I wanted to be at first base and starting for the varsity team. It was something I had set in my mind. I knew I wanted to be there one day. Now that I am finally here, I didn't let my shoulder or anything get in my way."
Braddock admits she has had a lot of bad luck in her career, but she has used those things as motivation. She said she has tried to keep a positive attitude because she understands she is going to encounter bigger obstacles in her life, so she has to continue to work hard to overcome things that initially set her back.
"I really am proud of myself for stepping up," Braddock said. "I really wanted to be here (in slow-pitch season), but I knew it would be better for me because I could come back for the fast-pitch season and help my team.
"I love being a part of the program. Every one of these girls is like my sister. Me and D.J. and some of the others grew up playing since we were 5 years old. It was just like coming back to my old team. I had to adjust to new people being here."
Braddock has 13 hits and has scored 11 runs through 25 games. Bradley is hitting .320 with 20 runs and 17 RBIs, while James has 11 hits, 12 RBIs, and 15 runs.
Beard said this year's seniors are part of the second class of players she had as seventh-graders -- when they were "babies" -- all the way through this season. Even though all of the statistics might not show it, Beard said all of the seniors have grown and become more confident and overcome injuries to help set the example she hopes all of the younger players follow.
"Brooke has stepped up and played a big role," Beard said. "You can't take away from the Kaitlins, the Taylors, the R.J.s, and the Brookes. They are the girls who sit up here every day and play that back role with pride and still work their butts off to do what they have to do to help the lineup."
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Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.